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The Year of Magical Thinking
The Year of Magical Thinking on Broadway, reviewed by Elyse Sommer
I've already clocked in at length about The Coast of Utopia, Therefore suffice it to say that as a Stoppard fan and someone who loves to see epic stories and lots of actors on stage, I went with high expectations and wasn't disappointed. On the other hand, I found the Joan Didion's memoir as excerpted in The New York Times compelling, but not enough so to put the entire book on my immediate must-read list. That excerpt was substantial enough to make me doubtful about how that cool, anthropological Didion style could translate into the format of a play.
It takes a lot to bring dramatic liveliness to a solo play. Often, the actor on stage assumes a variety of voices, moves around a lot, changes outfits and is supported by a colorful set or projections. These theatrical devices are less useful for a story about grievous loss and pain, like Didion's double loss of her beloved husband John (suddenly) and daughter Quintana (a more drawn-out but equally horrendous tragedy). It therefore takes a great actor to make such a monologue a riveting, emotionally satisfying and memorable piece of theater. Occasionally, we see an example that proves that it can be done. Primo, adapted from Holocaust survivor Primo Levi's writings by Anthony Sher and performed by Sher, is the most recent example that comes to mind.
When Vanessa Redgrave was cast to be Didion's alter ego, my hopes rose that she could bring off this very difficult sort of public grieving. With direction in the hands of David Hare, who knows a thing or two about solo plays, having written and performed in the very successful Via Dolorosa, it did seem possible that the collaboration of three well-respected artists could imbue The Year of Magical Thinking with theatrical magic.
It did and it didn't.
There's no question that Redgrave is a superb actress. She is an imposing, attention holding presence, her blue-eyed gaze is almost hypnotic. She can do wonders with her hands and mini-props like a bracelet, and seemingly unplanned things, like loosening her elegant white hair during a happy memory. And it doesn't really matter that she and Joan Didion are total physical opposites. What does matter is that Redgrave, like any great thespian, thrives on emotional depth, while Didion's trademark is a restraint that makes you read between the lines. Consequently, there's just so much Redgrave can do with text, that despite its highly charged content and welcome bits of ironic humor, is basically a talking book.
Maybe if David Hare had, in addition to directing, done some heavy handholding for Didion's first outing as a playwright, she would have been able to make more drama enhancing changes in the playscript. The fact that the only time that I found myself genuinely engaged, my throat tight and my hands clenched, was past the halfway mark when the emphasis shifts to the added material about Quintana's final illness. What mother can fail to respond to the agonizing question at the heart of this elegy: "why couldn't I have kept the promise I always made to my child that I would keep her safe?" What spouse who has lost a beloved partner doesn't have to find a way towards accepting that what happened really did happen (the "magical thinking" of the woman tagged by the doctors as "a cool customer" involved her deluding herself that John would come back, at one point saying "I can't give away his shoes. He'll need shoes when he comes back").
Hare's directing does little to relieve the essential stasis. He keeps Redgrave pretty much glued to the chair that is backed by scrims (designed by Bob Crowley) that suggest abstract paintings of the California beach Didion and her family loved. Intermittently, these scrims drop like a page marked "end of chapter" which again points to a major problem in this page to stage adaptation. Didion's memoir wasn't written as a non-stop page turner. The thoughts and feelings this sort of book stirs up (your own memories and fears as well as the author's) are best digested a chapter or two at a time. Swallowing all of this in one big bite, even with Redgrave to feed us Didion's words with clarity and warmth, makes even the hour and a half feel half an hour too long, especially since Didion's playwriting skills don't as yet include recognizing the right climax, instead of giving us at least two endings too many -- one of which is followed by Redgrave, finally released from her chair, but now tethered to The Year of Magical Thinking: The Book and actually reading from it. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a table in the lobby where audiences could buy autographed copies.
LINKS TO PLAYS MENTIONED
Via De La Rosa with David Hare
via De La Rosa with another actor playing Hare
The Coast of Utopia
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide