In December 2003, the writer Joan Didion had just finished building a fire and making her husband a drink when he suddenly stopped talking. They were in their apartment in Manhattan. Her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, slumped over, left hand raised. She thought he was joking. "Pretending to be dead. You've seen people make that kind of tiresome joke," Didion says early on in The Year of Magical Thinking, the play based on her memoir of the same name.
He wasn't joking. Thinking he was choking, she tried to do the Heimlich. He fell onto the table and then onto the floor. "There was a dark liquid pooling beneath his face," she says. Then paramedics, ambulance, traveling to the hospital—"I do not remember sirens"—everyone in scrubs, one man not in scrubs, the man not in scrubs telling her, "I'm your social worker." In the book, Didion writes, "I guess that is when I must have known."
In the play, she adds a dark promise: "If they give you a social worker, you're in trouble."
Didion is a near-magical force on the page—muscular, cold, and brilliant. The Year of Magical Thinking is a nervy and raw look at the way grief messes with you, and an indirect portrait of a scattering mind. When the book was published, it revealed one of the greatest American writers as both indomitable and standing at the edge of oblivion. It justly won a National Book Award.
As Didion makes clear in the Netflix documentary about her, she was reluctant to turn the memoir into a play because she had never written a play before. But with the help of the director David Hare, she did it, and Vanessa Redgrave played her in the debut of the one-woman show on Broadway.
Iciness is one of the hallmarks of Didion's work—an almost brutal iciness, which makes the occasional flashes of humor and warmth stand out—but iciness is nowhere on display in Suzanne Bouchard's portrayal of Didion at ACT Theatre. Bouchard seems to be trying to warm things up and invite the audience in with a buttery, smiling, softer interpretation of Didion as a kind of everyday woman, a friendly, normal mom. The trouble is, there's nothing everyday or normal or even particularly friendly about Didion. When someone once told her to have a nice day, she famously remarked, "I have other plans."
The text of the play (which you can buy in bookstores) is arguably better than the text of the memoir, because it includes an event that happened after Didion had completed the book but before she had written the play: The death of Didion's only daughter, Quintana Roo, after a string of freakish medical events. But after seeing this production at ACT, and rereading my review of The Year of Magical Thinking at Intiman in 2009, I'm starting to think this material just doesn't work as a play.
In the Intiman production in 2009, the Didion character walked back and forth between pieces of furniture and four stacks of books, reciting what had happened to her. That set also included a dock that appeared to be coming toward the audience (reminiscent of Didion's younger days in Malibu) and an apron of white sand.
In this 2019 production at ACT, there's a chair, an end table, a glass of water... and that's it. The end table has one book on it, and weirdly it's The Year of Magical Thinking, which seems a bit cute to me. If this were supposed to be Didion's home, Didion's milieu, it would work better, communicate more, for the book to be one of Didion's favorites, one of the books she's always mentioning in her writing: Victory by Joseph Conrad, or Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, or Birds of America by Mary McCarthy.
"You long for the director to figure out the dramatic contours of the monologue better and make them work as theater," I wrote back in 2009, referring to Sarna Lapine's direction at Intiman. The director at ACT is the eminently talented Victor Pappas (remember The Picture of Dorian Gray last summer?), but his production of Magical Thinking left me feeling the same way. That's why I suspect the problem has more to do with the text as a dramatic work than any specific production choices.
Pappas has a director's note in the program that nearly reduced me to tears. It begins:
At roughly 3:45 in the morning on November 6, 2000, my husband died of brain cancer. His death left me in a spiral of shock, grief, anger, and despair as I could never have imagined. In the period that followed, I did as he wanted me to do—arranged for the cremation, the memorial, the items he wanted to give to others. I scattered the ashes, notified the creditors, paid the outstanding bills. Friends and family were there to hold me up and help me through.
And then I waited for him to come back.
This director's note is the most touching thing about this production.
The Year of Magical Thinking plays at ACT Theatre through August 11.