The Year of Magical Thinking
- Written by: Joan Didion
- Directed by: Susan Wilson
- Circa Two
- 11 August − 08 September
“A play that is as intensely intimate as it is universal” – Daily News
“This happened on December 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you…”
In this dramatic adaptation of her award-winning best-selling memoir, Joan Didion transforms the story of the sudden and unexpected loss of her husband and their only daughter in a stunning and powerful one woman play.
“Didion has a peerless ear for the music of words in motion.” – The New York Times
“An indelible portrait of grief and loss… a haunting portrait of a four decade long marriage.” – The New York Times
“Poignant, heartbreaking and wry. In Joan Didion’s beautifully written play, the emotions are so genuine we can’t help but be affected.” – Newsweek
National Book Award Non Fiction 2005
Running time: 90 minutes (no interval)
NO LATE ADMISSION
Listen to Catherine Downes talk about The Year of Magical Thinking with Kim Hill here.
Cast and crew
Starring Catherine Downes
11 August − 08 September
Tuesday to Saturday 7.30pm
Seniors (65+) /Students/Beneficiaries $38
Friends of Circa (until 23 August) $33
Groups 6+ $39
Groups 20+ $36
Under 25 $25
Masterly Portrayal of Loss and Survival
Reviewed by Ewen Coleman, The Dominion Post, 15 August 2012
How someone deals with the loss of not only their husband but their only daughter within the space of nine months would not be considered by most people as something they would want to see performed on stage.
But American author and writer Joan Didion's experiences of how she dealt with such a situation, dramatised from her 2005 book, makes The Year of Magical Thinking, Circa Two's current production, an electrifying piece of theatre.
Her husband dies of a heart attack at dinner one evening after visiting their daughter in hospital who was in an induced coma having suffered septic shock after a bout of pneumonia. Then, although her daughter has periods of getting well, she eventually dies nine months later of pancreatitis.
But as the play shows Didion re-living and analysing her husband's death while all the time caring for her daughter, she doesn't follow the usual course of grieving nor wallow in self pity. Although her writing is heartfelt, it is also incredibly expressive and lyrical, a mark of the great writer that she is.
Initially she is in a type of denial, thinking that if she hopes enough or carries out the right actions, then the inevitable won't happen, which she likens to magical thinking in the anthropological sense, hence the title of the play. But she soon moves on from this, especially after her daughter dies.
However, as good as this Didion's writing is, it still needs to be brought to life on the stage and this where Susan Wilson's production makes this into a superb piece of theatre.
And while the simple but effective set of Penny Angrick, Marcus McShane's subtle but very evocative lighting design and Gareth Hobbs haunting music all add much to the quality of this production, it is the stand out performance of Catherine Downes that transcends this production into something special.
Solo performances often incorporate multiple characters. Not so this play. Catherine Downes is nobody but Joan Didion relating her year of magical thinking and how Downes does it is masterful.
From the moment she appears on stage with her opening lines, reticent, holding back, but powerfully seductive, the audience is drawn into her world where they stay for the duration of the production savouring Downes' exquisite performance.
There are moments of emotion, beautifully handled by Downes, but for the most part this is a rational, sometimes even calculating, way of dealing with loss which Downes portrays with such confidence and ease. Consummate performer that she is, the strength, stamina and ability of someone to perform what is essentially a 90 minute monologue is quite extraordinary.
A must-see production for not only the writing but for Downes' amazing performance.
The Gift of Truth Perfectly Pitched
Reviewed by John Smythe, Theatreview, 12 August 2012
As the audience rises to applaud Catherine Downes' solo effort, the wonder of it is she has made her 90 minute marathon seem effortless: such is the centred fluency of her beautifully paced and modulated performance, directed by Susan Wilson.
Don't be put off by the subject matter: grief. This is not an emotive wallow. It's a character study more than anything, provoked by two deaths in the family. That the husband's is relatively predictable makes its suddenness no easier to cope with than the daughter's, which is appallingly premature, long drawn out and unexpected, despite the sojourns in ICU.
If it was fiction we might ask, why make up something like this? But it's all true. It happened to American writer Joan Didion, she completed a memoir about her response to the death of her husband of 40 years (novelist, screenwriter and literary critic John Gregory Dunne) and the serious illnesses of their daughter, Quintana (almost as old as their marriage), a year and a day after he died. Then, after Qintana's death, she developed The Year of Magical Thinking as a solo performance piece (her only play), adding more about their only daughter. (Her subsequent memoir, Blue Nights, published last year, deals more fully with the Quintana story.)
Its truth, then, is incontrovertible. And what is most true is its portrait of a woman who likes to be in control attempting to cope with having no control over things that affect her profoundly, and regaining some semblance of control in the process.
Despite her compulsion to be objective, observational and analytical – including of herself – the truth we experience, both hers and our own, is highly subjective, whether it is gained through our own objective observation and analysis, or through intuitive empathy or a mixture of both.
Her truth isn't ‘the' truth. “I didn't write for a year,” she tells us and yet her memoir was written in the final three months of that very year. Perhaps she didn't see it as publishable writing at the time but as a private process of coming to terms with it all.
Didion doesn't overtly present a text-book case-study of the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). Except right up front she does announce she is telling us what we need to know because although the details will be different, we will all experience this. Some of us already have. And will again. Each time was, is and will be very different yet essentially the same.
Denial is certainly present in her experience. But at first glance anger is missing. Except she does recall what she felt was wrong with the hospital, and how she felt about John (her husband) not being there to save ‘Q' (their nickname for Quintana). So yes, anger is there in the way one dedicated to self control would have it.
The bargaining phase, closely linked to denial, is what leads Didion to see her year as one of ‘magical thinking'. Even an autopsy, in her way of thinking, will lead to John's death being disproven and his return. This the part most of us keep to ourselves for fear of being thought mad, which is one reason this play's honesty is a gift to us all.
The depression phase manifests in what she calls “the vortex effect” and of course acceptance is proven by the very existence of her memoir and this play.
What makes The Year of Magical Thinking very different from most of the solo plays we have seen over the years is its focus on one person alone. There is no display of multi-character acting here. Joan doesn't even paint us a verbal portrait of John or Quintana, let alone the bit-players in the story (like Q's husband, Tony). It's all about her – she admits as much – which may be another thing those in grief feel but dare not reveal. And by tracking her thinking, we get some sense of her feelings.
It has to be said that Joan Didion's life is not what we'd call ‘normal'. Money is never an issue. While friends were plentiful decades ago they seem insignificant now and no close relations are mentioned at all, although we have to assume John's funeral was well attended. Tony, the son-in-law, hardly features at all, either as part of her support system or as an obstacle to her reclaiming her daughter. Perhaps this insularity is a function of both Joan and John being writers.
Humour is also absent, despite its healing properties and intrinsic value as a coping mechanism. But that is something that sparks between people and this is not the theatrical equivalent of an address at a funeral. It is her private truth, her true personality and her gift to humanity, for those who want it.
And there is no denying the subtle qualities of Didion's writing, as brought to life by Downes, Wilson and the design team. Even though it reviews the past, the script always gives Joan a place to stand in the story; there is always a present – albeit shifting – from which she observes, recalls, analyses, comments …
And every now and then, amid the well-chosen words so fluently articulated, a profound emotion surfaces which is, theatrically, very effective.
The value of Penny Angrick's set becomes more and more apparent as the play progresses. Judiciously lit by Marcus McShane, its bleached wood shelving and portals, sparsely punctuated with dark grey books and picture frames, serves admirably as Didion's apartment before going on to echo the sterility of a hospital and the white light of a beach. It also delineates the apartment block and urban landscape in which the story unfolds.
Composer Gareth Hobbs provides ideal music bridges to indicate the passage of time and, aligned with the lighting, the shifts of locale and perspective.
All is perfectly pitched for the intimacy of Circa Two. We don't so much witness a performance as spend time with a very particular person who has a profound experience to share. It is 90 minutes very well spent.