The Year of Magical Thinking

  • Date:
    March 1, 2007
    Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus

    Review by Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus

    When writer Joan Didion's daughter was in the hospital, desperately ill with septic poisoning, she knew that as long as she was there by her side, Quintana wouldn't die. All mothers know this. But Q -- her family nickname -- did die, though Didion mentions her death casually in her script for "The Year of Magical Thinking" in a "by the way" as she starts to tell us about the death of her husband, John.

    This is just one moment in an evening of many moments that makes the script for "Magical Thinking" so brilliant, and it would have to be, of course, for how else could anyone sit in the theater for more than an hour and a half, listening to one woman talk about how the two people closest to her died within a space of a year. Not by chance, the fact that Vanessa Redgrave plays Didion is what makes it all possible.

    This luminous actor, with her glistening sky-blue eyes, keeps the audience at the edge of their seats, breath held, for the entire time as she relates the sequence of events, and pathways of her thinking, in their most exquisite detail.

    In dramatic transitions that parallel Kubler-Ross's stages of grief, flimsy backdrops fall to the floor revealing layer upon layer of depth and understanding, never covering her emotions for even one second, as she bares all for the audience. In watery colors of white, gray and charcoal, simulating sun, sky and a gauzy middle distance, the curtains darken or lighten, providing graphic illustration of whatever stage of mourning is reached by Didion.

    In yet another of her tour-de-force performances (that seems to be the only kind Ms. Redgrave can give), we inch forward so as not to miss one word or gesture. We are sucked into Didion's emotional vortex, and our own memories as well, mesmerized by Ms. Redgrave�s stunning presence.

    Didion began writing her book, "The Year of Magical Thinking" in 2004, shortly after the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, because that's what writers do when something momentous happens to them. Her daughter died just before its publication, and Didion added that piece to her stage play.

    It wasn't possible for Didion to accept John's death at first and so she decided he would come back. But still, despite the obvious contradiction here, she realized there would be an obit in the New York Times and she couldn't allow her friends in California to find out about John in the newspapers, especially a New York newspaper. Immediately, a thought struck her: If when a loved one dies, you jet to California, or better yet, New Zealand, then the person isn�t yet dead, and you might just get one more day, right? Thus began Didion's year of magical thinking.

    But it's the later part of the monologue, when Didion talks about Q that she abandons all intellectual distance, all pretense of magical thinking, and precariously balances herself between control and collapse. For how do you adjust to such cataclysmic tragedy?

    What compels us to endure the stages of grief with Didion is its universality. Anyone who has ever suffered a loss knows exactly what she experienced, even if the circumstances are altogether different. But "Magical Thinking" is anything but a depressing play. It is rather, cathartic and uplifting. Didion shows us a way to use a year of "magical thinking" when it becomes necessary so that we too may heal.

    "A Year of Magical Thinking" is a night of magical theater. This is the performance of a lifetime in a lifetime of performances. And frankly, anyone else nominated for a Best Actress Tony this year should simply gracefully say, "No thank you. Give it to Vanessa."

    Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus

    What the press had to say.....

    BEN BRANTLEY of THE NEW YORK TIMES: �Arresting yet ultimately frustrating new drama."

    CLIVE BARNES of THe NEW YORK POST: "A performance so intense in its casual passion that a stilted literary expression is transformed into a reality of life. This is acting at its grandest."

    MICHAEL SOMMERS of STAR-LEDGER: "Austerely staged at a measured pace by David Hare, the 90-minute monologue proves to be a plaintive verbal sonata exquisitely performed by Redgrave."

    ELYSA GARDNER of USA TODAY: "Dignity is the word that comes to mind in describing Redgrave's performance and Didion's script." & "Didion's chronicle of suffering and survival may be more dramatic for theatergoers who don't already know its outcome. However horrific the events she endured and however cruel their timing, there are few elements of mystery or, in truth, revelation in their retelling."

    JACQUES LE SOURD of THE JOURNAL NEWS " Didion is making a major contribution to our discussion of death with this play. Indeed, if you see only one play this spring, make it 'The Year of Magical Thinking.' You won't cry. But you will be moved, and possibly changed by the experience."

    LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY: "90 minutes of spellbinding theater."

    ERIC GRODE of the NEW YORK SUN: "Doing complete justice to the book in any other medium...would require almost superhuman abilities. It would require the intellectual discipline of a Joan Didion, the theatrical savvy of a David Hare, and the near-limitless emotional and cerebral resources of a Vanessa Redgrave. And yet, even with these potent ingredients in place, the stage incarnation frequently brushes up against but rarely surpasses the book's austere majesty. Coming even this close makes "The Year of Magical Thinking" an absorbing and memorable experience. But memorable is not the same thing as unforgettable."

    JOHN SIMON of BLOOMBERG: "Didion's 90-minute intermissionless itemization of oh- so-literary epiphanies, as recited and enacted by Vanessa Redgrave, leaves me as stone-cold as the dead."

    MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS: "Didion is an impeccable observer, and when her insights and descriptions are delivered by an actress as accomplished as Vanessa Redgrave, you know the evening will achieve moments of eloquence."

    PETER MARKS of the WASHINGTON POST: "Stately, tasteful and solemn, 'The Year of Magical Thinking' arrives on Broadway steeped in good breeding -- and devoid of anything to stir the blood."

    DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY: "Adapting the book for the stage, Didion has filleted the text into a spare but compelling solo piece. Whether or not it's a play is difficult to judge in David Hare's audaciously austere production, given how inextricably linked the work is to Vanessa Redgrave's riveting interpretation. But regardless of how it's classified, this is unmissable theater."

    External links to full reviews from newspapers

    New York Times
    New York Post
    USA Today
    Journal News
    New York Sun
    Associated Press
    Washington Post