Kathleen Turner is back at Arena Stage, and that is always good news for Washington theater-goers. Having starred in Mother Courage and her Children, and Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, in previous seasons, she now inhabits the mind and soul of writer Joan Didion in the author’s extraordinary memoir of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking. Turner gives full voice to Joan Didion’s complex reactions, drawing us into her orbit, insisting that we understand how loss affected her, and may affect each of us when our inevitable losses occur.
Didion wrote her memoir following the sudden death of her husband and fellow writer, John Gregory Dunne, on the evening of December 30, 2003. They had just returned from a hospital where their only child, Quintana, lay in a coma after pneumonia evolved into septic shock. Celebrated as a classic book about mourning, The Year of Magical Thinking won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography. Didion later adapted her book into a one-woman show for the stage, adding an even more heartbreaking ending, the death of Quintana two years after John’s passing.
She speaks to what we all know: life changes, irrevocably, in an instant. But it takes months and years for the mind and spirit to catch up. In the interim, we may experience ‘magical thinking,’ in essence, a way of remaking reality to perhaps alter the narrative or prevent the loss. Or, to prepare for a loved one’s return. Just after John’s death in their Manhattan apartment, she wonders what time it had been in L.A. when John passed. If it was not yet late evening on the Pacific coast, “Was there time to go back? Could we have a different ending on Pacific time?” When it came time to give away John’s clothes, Joan found that she could not give up his shoes. After all, he would need them when he returned.
Kathleen Turner masterfully draws us into Didion’s magical thinking, and also, her ironically distanced, reportorial description of it. For nearly half of the play, Turner recounts Didion’s ordeal in short, staccato terms. She talks about the moment John slumps down in his chair, just after he asks her for a second Scotch. She thinks he is joking, then realizes he’s not. She chronicles the ensuing efforts to revive him, and then about meeting a young man at the entrance to the hospital who introduced himself as her social worker. That is never a good sign, Turner tells the audience.
Almost immediately, Didion knew John was dead, but for months afterwards, even as she pored through detailed hospital reports, knowing and believing were vastly different. She goes through the checklist of death: inform relatives, make funeral arrangements, read autopsy report — appearing to be what the social worker called her that night — a cool customer. It is a measure of Turner’s amazing acting and her rich, sonorous voice, that we remain on the edge of our seats during this lengthy exposition.
Still, it is with some relief that we experience more visible tortures of grief that envelop Turner later in the play. Quintana lays seriously ill again, this time in California, and Joan flies out to care for her in Los Angeles, where Didion/Dunne family lived happily during Quintana’s youth. Here, Turner’s dramatic gifts are given full throttle. Her body clutches, her voice breaks, and her face becomes a mask of pain as she struggles, unsuccessfully, to stay out of the vortex of unbearably sweet memories evoked by being ‘home.’
Finally, she realizes that her year of magical thinking has ended. She no longer believes that John will come back. Now, true grieving can begin. Turner is such a strong actress, with an astounding emotional range, that we, perhaps subconsciously, wish for this opportunity to experience her gifts fully.
Gaye Taylor Upchurch directs with tenderness and finesse. She shows a profound understanding of Didion’s process as she gradually unleashes Joan from the numbing phase of her grief. She stages the play in what looks like a facsimile of the Dunne/Didion Manhattan apartment, the place where John died, rather than in the more neutral backgrounds employed by some other productions of this play.
Because the staging is so literal, lighting is a critical element in allowing us to move to the story’s various locations. Jesse Belsky does an outstanding job of transporting us from the apartment to the hospitals, from the East Coast to the West, with the focus and coloration of her lights. When Turner gazes out of the apartment window – now transformed into the view from Quintana’s hospital room in Los Angeles, we believe that the entire, sprawling city and the Pacific Ocean beyond are exactly what Didion sees.
The universality of grief, and Didion’s eloquent contribution to the exploration of loss, is no doubt the reason why The Year of Magical Thinking has been produced worldwide since Vanessa Redgrave originated the role on Broadway in 2007.
The Arena production combines top-flight acting, inspired directing, and fine production values with Didion’s superb prose to create a “must-see” event.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.