Kathleen Turner as Joan Didion in "The Year of Magical Thinking" at Arena Stage. (C. Stanley Photography)

Kathleen Turner can’t help but heat up Joan Didion’s frosty “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Her one-of-a-kind voice is a steady low boil, and as she fixes the Arena Stage audience with a commanding gaze and announces warningly that grief hits us all, you can tell Turner’s in for a fight.

It’s an interesting mix, for Didion’s equally singular voice is almost eerily cool. “The Year of Magical Thinking” is adapted from Didion’s best-selling 2005 memoir of losing her husband as their daughter was gravely ill, and Didion applies her dry, detail-oriented eye to herself under duress. Her writing sounds like an out-of-body experience.

“How far have I absented myself from the realm of normal responses?” goes one of the precisely worded inquiring lines as Didion observes herself pretending that somehow her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, will return to her despite his sudden fatal heart attack.

The passion lies underneath, but Turner warms it flush to the surface — detachment doesn’t always seem to be her thing. Didion is clinical; Turner is earthy. In Turner’s hands, Didion is a woman cracking up and at the edge of panic. Her hands flutter to her chest. She founders. She stops short and searches for words in such a way that you’re not always sure if it’s the character in distress or if it’s Turner still mastering every carefully turned phrase in this intermissionless, nearly-two-hour solo script.

This is a more overtly distraught performance of Didion than Vanessa Redgrave’s on Broadway or Helen Hedman’s here at Studio Theatre. But on its own terms it gradually works for this quirky, defiantly literary play, especially when Turner rises out of grief and wields a knowingness that can be tremendously impressive. Authority is compelling in “Magical Thinking,” even though the tension in Didion is between control and lack of control.

Kathleen Turner as Joan Didion in "The Year of Magical Thinking" at Arena Stage. (C. Stanley Photography)

“In what I now know to have been exactly five minutes, the ambulance arrived,” Didion writes, cluing us in to the lag time of her getting a grip on events. It’s a fact-packed account, and Turner delivers information with a wry and black-edged sense as, for instance, she describes particular medications and the dire scenarios in which they’re called for. A grim kinship evolves when Turner looks straight at the audience and drives realities home, partly as a warning and very much in advance sympathy. As Didion repeats, “It will happen to you.”

Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch keeps Turner on the move in the 200-seat Kogod Cradle with a restlessness that seems appropriate to this agitated character. Set designer Daniel Zimmerman supplies an elegant, realistic interior: a sitting area on one side, a writing desk on the other, with neat bookshelves and a polished wood floor — nothing out of place or in disarray. Upchurch and designer Jesse Belsky keep the house lights up at first as Turner draws us all into Didion’s experience, yet at other times darkens the stage gloomily as the hardships keep coming.

Actress Kathleen Turner stars in 'The Year of Magical Thinking,' playing at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. The show is based on Joan Didion's memoir, which explores themes of marriage and grief. (The Washington Post)

The tragic stack of colossally awful luck in “Magical Thinking” — the enormity of it — does line up in some fundamental way with Turner’s inescapable strength. With her unfathomably deep and raspy voice, she sounds like she’s getting through a lifetime of long nights. Reliving the anguish is understandable, but Turner is most effective when she takes Didion’s analytical stance and just lets flow the innate worldliness she’s flaunted since she first hit the scene in “Body Heat.” Tell it, sister.

The Year of Magical Thinking By Joan Didion. Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. Costumes, Kathleen Geldard; original music and sound design, Roc Lee. About one hour and 50 minutes. Through Nov. 20 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org. $40-$90, subject to change. $40-$120.