Joan Didion is a woman with a secret. A secret she is eager to share with the audience: “This will happen to you,” she asserts, with quiet certainty. Some day, some year. Out of the clear, blue sky. Death will strike. And you will be forced to face it.
The Year of Magical Thinking is a powerful, one-woman production in performance at The Verona Studio, starring Pamela Abernathy as the Author/Playwright, Joan Didion, and directed by Jo Dodge. The play is an autobiographical account of Didion’s struggle with the closely-timed deaths of both her husband and her daughter. It is based on her novel of the same name. (You can find more the background of the play in this preview.)
Unlike most dramas, which save the pile of bodies for the end, tragedy strikes before this play even begins. In the opening moments, Joan recounts her husband’s sudden aneurysm, leading to his almost immediate death. The rest of the play follows, as Joan suffers through various stages of grief and denial. Her magical thinking is that if she keeps belief in her husband alive—if, for example, she keeps his old shoes—he will come back. And by “back,” the grief-stricken Joan means literally back to life. This kind of thinking is not rationale, but it is logical, and it is totally human. It is a defense mechanism to protect against pain. Haven’t we all had those kinds of beliefs as children? I know several sports fans who still cling to such beliefs (if I wear my lucky socks, my team will win!). Certainly, there is nothing mad about Joan’s coping mechanism, despite her own doubts.
The performance by veteran actor Pamela Abernathy is stunning. She held the audience absolutely rapt for a full one hour and forty minutes without so much as moving from her chair and taking only three sips of water (I counted). At first, I worried that the tempo of her delivery was too fast, but I should not have been. Helped by the equally talented director Jo Dodge, Abernathy hits all of her beats, levels, and tempo changes precisely. Abernathy’s Joan is by turns steely and sly, and invites the audience into her personal world like an old friend. Yes, there are moments of pain, but her performance never veers into the maudlin.
Going into the performance, knowing only that it dealt with grief, I expected something of a sad play. But it is not. A tragicomedy, in the formal sense, is a play that skirts close to tragedy (usually, with one character thinking another is dead) that recovers with a comic ending (the loved one is really alive). In this play, the reverse arc takes place: Joan believes her husband alive, and comes to accept that he is dead. In her epiphany lies the catharsis. Really, this is a play full of hope, showing that out even amidst great personal adversity, the individual can survive. The world changes, but it continues.
The Year of Magical Thinking plays for one more weekend, through October 1, and Verona’s small house fills up quickly. See it if you can.