Joan Didion is not the most empathetic of writers. In her studies of the 1960s and 70s, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, she treats her counterculture subjects (hippies, Black Panthers, The Doors) with disdain and in her novel Play it as it Lays, she treats her fictitious characters with brimming contempt. Her words are often exact and exacting, completely rational.
The tagline for the Intiman Theater’s production of Didion’s own adaptation of her 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking says “It’s okay to lose your mind; you’d be crazy not to”. Here is a memoir of remarkable honesty and empathy while she navigates her own emotions while her daughter is hospitalized with pneumonia and her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died of cardiac arrest – both within a few days of each other. Didion’s daughter Quintana died shortly after she finished writing her memoir, so it is left out of the book, but is dealt with in the stage adaptation she wrote.
The Intiman’s production of The Year of Magical Thinking stars Judith Roberts as Didion and was directed by Sarna Lapine. It’s a 100+ minute, one person play that is held together by the chronology of Didion’s thoughts. There is some light humor here, especially with Didion having to deal with an unsympathetic hospital while Quintana is hospitalized and not wanting her to wake up to seeing news of her father’s death on CNN. For the most part, though, this is a very serious work held together by the mind of a great writer trying to navigate her own thoughts while not sure how she should react. She searches for guidance in self-help books, but finds the literature wanting.
When Roberts’ Didion was thinking aloud about her husband’s death and being in denial about it (she refused to give up his shoes because he would need them later), I couldn’t avoid drawing the comparison to the anti-heroine in the novel Play it as it Lays, whose abortion was treated with such nonchalance.
Judith Roberts handled the material well, maintaining the attention of her audience while expecting them to listen to her talk about death and denial and every subject in between for an hour and forty minutes. My thoughts drifted in an out throughout the play but I think that is natural and somewhat expected. Still, it is not unlike being through a twelve-step program for grief, albeit being led by and walking through it with one of this country’s best living writers. It’s not an ideal journey, but Joan Didion knows that, and most importantly, she understands.
(Photo by Chris Bennion)