Vanessa Redgrave and Joan Didion, the names conjure up vastly different images and styles, yet the two have come together for a Broadway production that is considered by many to be the theatrical event of the season. Under David Hare’s seasoned direction the great Redgrave, a Academy Award and Tony Award winning actress, returns to Broadway in a one character play The Year of Magical Thinking based on Didion’s haunting memoir of the same name.
Didion’s memoir was a 2005 publishing sensation, winning the National Book award, as well as being a Pulitzer finalist. The book remained on The New York Times hardcover best seller list for 30 weeks, becoming the focus of much media attention, and receiving worldwide critical acclaim. The New York Times Magazine even did a feature cover story on Didion and her work.
In the memoir Didion recounts in vivid detail her reaction to the sudden death of her husband of 40 years, her often collaborator the writer John Gregory Dunne, on a December night just after Christmas 2003. The two had just returned from the hospital where their daughter had been placed in medically induced coma after coming down with septic shock. Didion had made a fire, fixed her husband a drink and was preparing dinner when Mr. Dunne suffered a fatal heart attack.
The Year of Magical Thinking illuminates her response that evening and in the year of mourning that followed his death, while she continued to care for her desperately ill daughter Quintana. In adapting her memoir into a play Didion has included the death of her daughter, almost 2 years after her husband’s that was not told in the book because Quintana was still alive at the time of its publication.
The first words she wrote after her husband’s passing were: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
What is especially compelling about the memoir is Didion’s voice, her detached observations. As a writer she has few peers and her elegant words possess a unique rhythm. She is one “cool customer,” but her feelings nonetheless unexpectedly ambush her despite her most determined efforts to keep them at bay. There is tension between the author’s cool style and the smudged quality of the harrowing events she speaks about.
The story chronicles her attempts to keep the grief and the self pity at bay while coming to terms with her feelings and the realization that for the past two years she ultimately had been in control of very little.
Although Redgrave delivers a searing deeply felt, yet emotionally restrained performance, she is not Didion the “cool customer,” and what was so arresting about the memoir, Didion’s seemingly detached view has not been translated to the stage. Redgrave is a vibrant often explosive actress her translucent feelings flickering constantly beneath the surface. Emotions rarely take her by surprise. She is a firecracker, an actress with great emotional depth capable of exploding at any moment. She is wonderful, but she is not Didion.
You can’t fault the actress, as Redgrave has apparently been guided by David Hare to chart her response to the telling of the disturbing events with measured highs and lows. The direction, however, feels imposed removing the theatrical tension from the play, and although the words are all Didion with many lines being lifted directly from the book, we are never moved by the “cool customer’s” plight because Redgrave is never suddenly ambushed by her feelings.
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
The Year of Magical Thinking opened at the Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street between Broadway and Eight Avenue, on March 29, 2007 for a strictly limited 24 week run. Tickets are available by calling 212-239-6200, or online at HYPERLINK "http://www.Telecharge.com" www.Telecharge.com, or at the box office.