Wendy Ishii mines the hard truths in Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking

Wendy Ishii mines the hard truths in Joan Didion's <i>Year of Magical Thinking</i>
Wendy Ishii in The Year of Magical Thinking.

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes. — Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

On the shadowy stage, a woman is seated at a desk behind a transparent screen. Then she comes forward, and the audience falls silent. The watchers remain mesmerized over the next ninety minutes as Wendy Ishii, founder of Bas Bleu Theatre in Fort Collins, tells a story that is not her own. It's The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s stage version of her memoir about bereavement, directed by esteemed Hollywood director Oz Scott.

Didion's daughter Quintana was in the hospital recovering from septic shock when Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, returned to their New York apartment in the evening. They lit a fire — "Fires said we were home. We had drawn the circle. We were safe for the night" — and she began preparing their dinner. While she sorted lettuce for a salad, Dunne, reading in front of the fire with a drink, suddenly slumped forward — so suddenly that at first Didion assumed it was an ill-timed joke.

She presents herself as an organizer, someone who arranges and controls — and also as a woman whose life has, for the most part, been profoundly privileged and comfortable. She and Dunne were literary and Hollywood royalty. We recognize the names she mentions; we hear about the family's travels, their clothes. Didion is a "cool customer," as a social worker at the hospital assured the doctor hesitant to give her bad news. Ishii repeats the phrase with wry, self-aware detachment. The prose of The Year of Magical Thinking is clean, strong, musical and — like nearly all of Didion's previous writing — an attempt to shape and control reality. There are also rituals and images, magical thinking she utilizes to try and make grief manageable. She knows Dunne is dead, but she also on some level believes that if she arranges everything right, does all she's supposed to do, he will return. She finds she can give away much of his clothing, but not his shoes: "I stood there for a moment, then realized why. He would need shoes if he was to return." If she departs from the rigid path she's mapped for herself, she encounters the vortex, "...the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself."

Several phrases repeat during the production, and there are quotations Didion turns over and over in her mind, examining them for truth. One is from Philippe Aries: "Death, even if sudden or accidental, gives advance warning of its arrival. Only the dying man can tell you how much time he has left." Dunne himself had a sense that death was approaching, and he convinced Didion that they should take a trip to Paris, because if they didn't, he might never see the city again.

Quintana Roo died just before Didion's memoir was published, and that sorrowful fact is included here.

Vanessa Redgrave starred in a version of this play in New York City a few years back. Ben Brantley of the New York Times praised the immense talent of both writer and actor, but felt that in a sense they pulled in opposite directions. Didion's understatement and reserve, the numbness she describes, weren't entirely well served by Redgrave's huge emotional power, he suggested. Ishii is a terrific actress, but every now and then I've found her just a touch too dramatic. Here, however, she shapes her own large talent to the contours of another artist's consciousness. There's a single moment when she reveals the chaos within; for the rest, she's restrained and controlled, giving a quietly penetrating performance that withers the soul.

 
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