In a 90-minute tour de force, Weston actress Maureen Anderman recounts the poignant, painful journey through grief experienced by Joan Didion, one of America's iconic writers, following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne in 2003 and only child, Quintana, two years later, in the 's "The Year of Magical Thinking."
Joan Didion, playwright and author of the award-winning memoir, is the special guest at today's Sunday Symposium, which follows the Playhouse's matinee performance. Led by the Playhouse's Associate Artistic Director David Kennedy, the community is invited to listen to Didion share her personal insights about grappling with the inevitable --death of loved ones--that we will all experience, whether we are prepared to or not.
The simplicity of this production's set--a square frame that forces us to focus on Anderman's mastery as she starkly articulates Didion's vivid imagery that often made me wince in their realism. Her way of coping with the unacceptable--her husband's leaving through death--is to try to do what she does best--meticulously research, create using precise language, and then revise--so that magically the outcome would change. With the same exacting precision, Anderman demonstrates Didion's desire to manage everything from deciding how and when the L.A. Times should report John's death (referring to the time change, she wishfully wonders if he's actually dead at all on the West Coast) to desperately trying to manage the outcome of her daughter's hospital care. She not only learns the scientific names of the numerous antibiotics pumped intravenously into her daughter; she also dons blue scrubs and purchases a textbook about neuroscience at the college bookstore to understand medical-speak, a feat she confesses to never mastering.
Director Nicholas Martin uses simple sounds--church bells accompany Anderman's recitation about Didon's barefoot marriage ceremony and a Gregorian chant softly plays as she describes John's memorial service. A scrim behind the set changes from a bland curtain to a calming scene of the California ocean as Anderson alternates between Didion's wistful thinking to flashes of traumatic truths about the break-up of her beloved family.
How do we move on through grave loss? How do we deal with cherished memories we want to both avoid and burn into our hearts? At the end of the play, Didion says she didn't want her magical year following both John and Quintana's deaths to end because the memories were already fading.
It's a beautiful production about human struggles that, to one degree or another, no one can avoid. We love. We feel loss. By bringing the unseen but central characters of John and Quintana to life, though, Martin further draws the audience in and we more fully exactly who Didion lost. Much laughter is heard as Anderman mimics John's voice as recalled by Didion. More levity is injected into the production and we smile at Quintana's obvious precociousness and quick wit. Like Didion, we, too, are charmed by the vision of a young girl with almost white hair, bleached by the Malibu sun.
The Year of Magical Thinking is another hit for the Westport Country Playhouse. Do not miss it. It's about tragic events but it's not a tragedy. It's a story of hope and moving forward through pain, grief and loss. It's inspiring.