A Stark Look At Loss In “The Year Of Magical Thinking”

Like most writers worth their salt, I’m at least somewhat familiar with the work and life of extraordinary essayist Joan Didion. But even the extraordinary among us are by no means immune to the ravages of ordinary human tragedies, or to ordinary human grief, as both her book The Year Of Magical Thinking and her theatrical adaptation of the same name can attest.

As currently presented by Gablestage, “The Year Of Magical Thinking” is a haunting look into Didion’s psyche as she struggles to cope with the unexpected death of her husband as well as the death of her daughter Quintana which, by virtue of occurring after a long illness, may in theory have been more predictable, but by virtue of her relative youth is in ways even more destabilizing. 


Photo Credits: Magnus Stark

As with the book, much of the tension of the play comes from the juxtaposition of Didion’s hyper-cerebral nature and writing style and the raw irrationality of her grief, which manifests in the “magical thinking” of the title. For instance: she can at once appear as a collected “cool customer” to the doctor delivering the news of her husband’s death and be so fully convinced that he is coming back that she is reluctant to get rid of his clothes. This is only one of Didion’s futile attempts to “reason” or “bargain” her way out of what has happened and its permanence, as if gathering evidence for a judge before whom no human can stand trial. Later, she similarly tries to exert control over her daughter’s fate by becoming an expert on her medical condition and micromanaging her care, leading to one of the play’s relatively sparse but still notable dark, humorous moments as she realizes that her decision to buy a pair of scrubs from the ICU gift shop could only be interpreted by her daughter’s doctors, as indicating a clear lack of appropriate boundaries. 


Photo Credits: Magnus Stark

In fact, the extent to which A Year of Magical Thinking takes place during a period in which Didion makes daily pilgrimages to her daughter’s various intensive care units, uncertain of her prognosis makes it a particularly resonant one for COVID times. Though the play’s events far predate that wide-spread tragedy, the way Quintana’s initial flu rapidly escalated to full-blown pneumonia and then to an induced coma does call to mind the many stories I’ve read of COVID patients who followed similar trajectories. Some people who have lost loved ones to the diseaseor otherwisemay thus find some comfort in commiserating with Didion as she struggles to make sense of her heart wrenching and absurd circumstances. But it’s also worth noting that, more generally, the play seemed more disquieting than solace inducing. 


Photo Credits: Magnus Stark

 

The Year Of Magical Thinking seemed to me to far better at grabbing and keeping the attention than The Belle Of Amherst, another recent one-woman show focusing on a female writer, perhaps benefiting from a more intimate venue, a briefer running time, and a narrower narrative focus, as well as from being Didion’s own retelling of events rather than another writer’s imagining. Though the play is well-constructed, plenty insightful, and beautifully articulated, being trapped with Didion’s ruminative thoughts has the effect of making us feel almost trapped in her mind and in her sorrow, which does get a bit exhaustingand there’s really not enough redemption to be found in her journey to make this play a tolerable one for people who prefer their endings happy. 


Photo Credits: Magnus Stark

The play’s bleak atmosphere and internal quality is, though, quite well-suited by director Bari Newport’s minimalist vision. For instance, the play seems to be clearly “set” only in Didion’s rememberings, as represented by an evocative soundscape enhancing her recountings and the absence of any realistic set in favor of a black backdrop occasionally illuminated by glowing projections. Central (and only) actress Sara Morsey is also more than up to the marathon of carrying us through the story and at conveying Didion’s divided “cool customer” persona with plenty of gravitas and charisma, though at times she seemed perhaps a little too removed from the full weight of her character’s emotional underpinnings. Overall, The Year Of Magical Thinking is a tremendously affecting if not uplifting work of theatre, and one that fans of the book especially might enjoy tracking down before it closes this June 26.

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