If you thought The Year of Magical Thinking was Joan Didion’s witty take on a Hogwarts’ education, think again. The one-woman show at the Mead Center for American Theater Arena Stage powerfully captures the memoirist’s experiences and emotions in the year following the unexpected death of her husband and writing partner, John Gregory Dunne, and through the serious illness of her daughter, Quintana. Kathleen Turner is a tour de force as Didion. Rough-edged and raw, she recounts the forever seared shards of time leading to her husband’s death, the crystallized second when she gets the phone call about her daughter’s hospitalization, all the little moments that are forever hardened into turning points. Turner reaches into the chest of every viewer to convey her pain as she pleads comprehension for “when it happens to you. And it will happen to you.”
“Magical thinking” is how Didion describes the hundred negotiations in which we mentally engage when we bargain with God or our own demons. If I go three blocks out of my way to avoid driving on our old street, the dam holding back my grief won’t burst. If my daughter feels the Malibu sun on her hair, she will get better. If I know exactly how many minutes it took for the ambulance to arrive, for the EMTs to work, to transfer to the hospital, I can process my loss. A ubiquitous expansion of not stepping on sidewalk cracks, or making a wish when the clock reads 11:11. While the script occasionally bogs down with the enormity of detail it tries to convey, this “magical thinking” is clear, and we can all relate.
Turner’s performance cannot be overpraised. Her stamina alone is laudable. For two hours she holds the stage without break, recounting her deepening tragedy. This is clearly a woman who did her own stunts in Romancing the Stone. While set designer Daniel Zimmerman has crafted a pitch perfect backdrop, the props are few. Kathleen Geldard’s costumes are understated and Roc Lee’s sound effects are so subtle I initially mistook them for someone forgetting to turn off their phone. Every input is muted to retain focus on the main event: The show rests squarely with Turner. And she delivers. She evades maudlin. In the wake of loss that would buckle most of the audience, Turner’s pathos is measured.
Despite the loaded material, Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch describes Didion’s tale as generous. We see loss altered into something beautiful. Crystallized from all the pressure, grief is transformed into something that can catch the light. The partnership of Upchurch and Turner turns a heavy burden into something that shines. After the performance, I complimented Turner on her ability to convey Didion’s sorrowful tale, to which she replied, “But hopeful at the end, I hope.” That’s true magic. Fall under Turner’s spell at Arena Stage.
The Year of Magical Thinking is playing at Arena Stage Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle at the Mead Center for American Theater from through November 20, 2016 (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024). Running time: 120 minutes with no intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.
Photo credit: C. Stanley Photography.