Yesterday was unusual for me. I have had some historical difficulty receiving my press invitations from the wonderful Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, so I did not know until after this week’s press opening about its new production of Joan Didion’s heartbreaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning The Year of Magical Thinking. I contacted the theatre to ask for an invite, and an interesting thing happened: one of their Board members wrote to me simultaneously, our emails crossing in the ether, saying that she wanted to tell me that she really appreciated my reviews and hoped I’d be coming to this play. And then, yesterday afternoon, I got the invitation…for last night’s show, as I had previously told them I would be available.
So my husband and I suddenly had an engagement for the evening. (Actually, I first tried a former colleague who adores Didion, but caught him driving across Kansas. Isn’t modern technology fun?) It turns out to have been an evening very well spent. The play is a faithful rendering of the book; of course: Didion adapted it herself. Her character in this one-woman show is played by the remarkable actress Annabel Armour, who breathes such life into Didion’s poetic prose that the audience remains riveted throughout. Both the book and play are explorations of how we deal with grief. In the span of less than one year, Didion lost both her long-time husband and her 39-year-old daughter. John died of a massive heart attack; Quintana died after what NPR describes as “complications from a flu that turned into pneumonia — then septic shock, an induced coma, a brain bleed, five surgeries and months in intensive care.” As a parent, I feel horror even in transcribing that.
The book and play concern the ways in which Didion, trying to deal with the shock of it all, fell into the trap of “magical thinking”: the impossible but unshakable belief that John could “come back” if she just did everything right…even though she had no clue what “right” was. It’s intense at times, of course, but Didion also had a sense of humor about it, as if she recognized the absurdity even while believing in it. It’s a form of “bargaining,” one of the “five stages of grief” defined by Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. Ultimately, the death of her daughter and the concomitant realization that nothing she could have done could “save” either of them brought her out of it.
Talk about heavy.
As directed by Gabrielle Randle-Bent and performed by Armour on a ribbon-like stage (designed by Yeaji Kim) under what seem like giant white worms wriggling across the ceiling and evoking clouds moving, ice floes caught in the current of a river, or even spirits climbing into heaven, this powerful, highly personal journey into one woman’s efforts to navigate horrifying and devastating trauma is the kind of play that sticks with you forever (sort of like this sentence; sorry about that). It is, indeed, as Didion writes, very familiar to all of us: if it hasn’t yet happened to you, she tells us, it will. It’s universal and inevitable.
Armour’s performance is intensely introspective. From the start, she carries a “journal” containing Didion’s wandering, intricate, beautiful first-person account of her thinking and the events that triggered those thoughts. She refers to it frequently as if, without directly “reading” it, she would be emotionally unable to get through this. The rest of her performance underscores this notion: she seems to move rapidly and randomly from memory to memory, occasionally getting “lost,” searching for words, or doubling back on her narrative to make sure she has covered everything she wanted to.
All of this, of course, perfectly encapsulates the shock of a family woman suddenly bereft of everything that kept her grounded. All she can do now is continue believing in the possibility of John’s return and repeating the ironic mantra she always used to comfort Quintana: “I’m here now; you’re safe.”
Like most people, I have experience with highly personal loss. I have witnessed it in the too-early loss of my son’s spouse and felt it in the death of my mother. Neither death was as sudden as John’s, nor were they as dragged-out as Quintana’s, with all of its false hopes. I don’t think it really matters, though: no matter what, it is always overwhelming and desolating. Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, painfully relives the experiences she had, and Annabel Armour, on the Theater Wit stage, makes that devastation real. This is not an easy play by any means, but it is an important one.
The Year of Magical Thinking is playing now through June 5. Tickets are available at Theater Wit box office or from https://www.remybumppo.org/shows/.x