"Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” These words are from Joan Didion’s one-woman play, The Year of Magical Thinking, which runs through June 30 at The Westport Country Playhouse.
Everyone knows what the book and play are about, but anyone who expects the play to be typical of Joan Didion’s other works needs to realize that the play is not about Joan Didion, the waif-like cultural and literary icon. It’s about Joan Didion, wounded lioness, whose mission was to take care of her beloved husband and daughter and whose unthinkable deaths 20 months apart changed her forever. But Joan Didion, the literary lioness, still roars in her first and only play. The monologue does have some of Didion’s recognizable writing style – the “cutting room experience” as she describes it, moving from scene to scene, the cross-hatching and the razor-sharp clarity.
Maureen Anderman plays Didion the lioness. She has majestic carriage and mane-like hair and wears a loose-fitting three-piece off-white pants outfit that resembles the folds of regal robes. Although there is a single Adirondack chair on the stage with a background of sheer curtains that reveal a body of water, she is on her feet throughout most of the show.
“Primitive cultures live on magical thinking,” says Didion in the play. She talks about clearing out John Gregory Dunne’s closet, but not getting rid of his shoes, because “he will need them when he returns.” She feels guilty for possibly missing any clues that could have predicted the fates of her husband and child. “You’re safe. I’m here,” she repeats to Quintana.
Anderman’s Didion could be the stranger who corners you and warns you of what she encountered, but you don’t want to get away from her because somehow you have faith in her. She compels you to listen, to empathize, to be prepared for you will face. "This happened on Dec. 30, 2003,” she tells you. “The details will be different, but it will happen to you….Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”
Alexander Dodge’s spare set and Philip Rosenberg’s lighting reflect Didion’s precise narrative perfectly. Didion makes references to the family’s life in Malibu and the rivers surrounding Manhattan. When she left the hospital after her husband’s death, the social worker who referred to her as a “cool customer” asked if she had the fare for the taxi. She likened it to the Greek myth in which Charon, the ferryman, would receive the fare to transport the souls of the newly deceased. When she recalled the time Quintana was taken to the hospital in California, she talked about swimming into a cave near their home in Malibu and how they had to catch the swell at just the right moment.
Despite the sadness of the topic and the frustrating, inexplicable ineptness of the doctors and staff at major city hospitals, the play is surprisingly empowering. Anderman, who understudied the role on Broadway, captures Didion’s strength and vulnerability and combines them with her innate grace in a tour-de-force performance.
Performances are Tuesday at 8pm, Wednesday at 2 and 8pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through June 30. Call (888) 927-752 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.