Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The Year of Magical Thinking

The recipe for an instant five-star production in the Sacramento area: cast Janis Stevens.

I have seen Stevens in several productions — including one-woman shows “Master Class” and “Vivien” — and she now adds another stellar performance, playing Joan Didion in Didion’s stage adaptation of her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” The play is currently at Sacramento’s Wilkerson Theater (formerly California Stage), under the impeccable direction of Ray Tatar.

Didion’s husband, author John Gregory Dunne, suddenly died of a heart attack one night as she was mixing the salad for dinner. The play details her travel through grief during that first awful year, a year in which her daughter also was dying of many infections in many hospitals (she finally did die the following year).

“This happened on Dec. 30, 2003,” the character begins the play, staring out into the audience. “That may seem a while ago, but it won’t when it happens to you. And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That is what I’m here to tell you.”

As her husband lay on the floor of their apartment being attended by paramedics, Didion took charge. She got the paperwork in order, she followed in a second ambulance to the hospital — the “wrong” hospital, she notes, planning to move him as soon as he was stable. She stood in line to fill out paperwork. She took charge.

But he was dead. She knew he was dead when she had a social worker assigned to her, but in her mind she felt that if the doctor didn’t say the words, maybe her husband wasn’t really dead. She demanded answers from the physician. The social worker gave him permission to give her the facts. “It’s OK,” he said. “She’s a pretty cool customer.” She was cool on the outside. Inside she was crumbling, but she coped. She took charge.

Life changes in an instant 
 an ordinary instant

I don’t know what experiences Stevens may have had with personal loss, but she nailed the emotions of someone trying to make sense of something that makes no sense. Whether she is cool and calm, talking about moving from day to day, alternately making arrangements for burying her husband, and then visiting her dying daughter, or whether she allows herself to crumble, briefly under the weight of so much pain, it is a journey that those who have been through themselves will find very familiar.

She admits that she sounds crazy when she can’t give away her husband’s shoes, even weeks after his death (though she has given away bags and bags of his clothing), because when he comes back he will need shoes.

If she corrects an error in the galleys of his book, completed shortly before his death, will he be upset with her?

A grieving person straddles two worlds, the real one in which she lives, and the magical one in which somehow, the deceased is still present and may be coming back. Stevens handles this dichotomy beautifully, its symbolism represented by the yin-yang design on the stage floor.

The set design by Ken Kurtis is stark, but the sweeping design painted on the walls neatly suggests the “vortexes” that a grieving person goes through during their year of magical thinking, trying to find a way to the “new normal.” Grief comes in waves, at times when you least expect it. You may think you’re doing fine and then the memories flood in and you have to deal with them. For someone like Didion, for whom being in control … “being right” … is so important, the vortexes are perhaps more painful.

The only unfortunate thing about this wonderful production is that there were only 20 people in the audience the night I saw it. The show deserves a larger audience, even if the thought of dealing with someone’s grief is a scary thing. The script is not really a downer, but has enough humor to keep the audience snickering with Didion throughout.

Try to catch this show. It will be a night you will long remember.

It will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you.

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