Get To Know Joan Didion Up Close

Keen Company’s staging of ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ makes Didion’s harrowing journey more immediate than it was when Vanessa Redgrave played her, quite beautifully, on Broadway.

Richard Termine
Kathleen Chalfant in ‘The Year of Magical Thinking.’ Richard Termine

One could hardly pick a more appropriate setting for Keen Company’s intimate, itinerant production of Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” than the swank, gated Upper East Side townhouse where I caught a preview last week.

The first-person account offered in this one-woman play — adapted by the celebrated author from her 2005 memoir, and first produced on Broadway two years later — begins in this very neighborhood, and drips with other references to the rarefied life Didion shared with her husband and frequent collaborator, John Gregory Dunne. With its nods to the couple’s beach house in Malibu and holidays in Honolulu, its name-dropping of highbrow brands, institutions, and people, the play harkens to a time when the cultural elite were less self-conscious about their privilege.

The subject at the core of “Magical Thinking,” however, transcends social and all other boundaries: It is grief, in particular Didion’s period of mourning after Dunne suffered a fatal heart attack in 2003. The book and play also chronicle the health struggles of Didion and Dunne’s then-newly married daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, who at the time of her father’s death lay in an induced coma in another hospital nearby.

Michael would herself die, at just 39 years old, shortly after her mother completed the book; Didion was able to address her passing in the play — and a subsequent memoir, “Blue Nights” — before leaving us herself late last year.

If there is no greater tragedy than losing a child, losing someone who has been as inseparable a partner as Dunne clearly was to Didion over four decades may well be the next worst thing; to suffer both losses within so short a time span would seem too cruel a fate for anyone to survive. 

Yet in a living room in that townhouse, there sat the duly treasured stage veteran Kathleen Chalfant, assuming Didion’s identity, assuring the dozen or so people seated around her — there weren’t more than 15 audience members — that “it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you.” And, it was immediately implied, you will press on, eventually.

Conceived and helmed by Keen’s artistic director, Jonathan Silverstein, this staging — which will be presented in other living rooms and community spaces in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens through November 20 — makes Didion’s harrowing journey more immediate than it was when Vanessa Redgrave played her, quite beautifully, on Broadway.

Kathleen Chalfant in ‘The Year of Magical Thinking.’ Richard Termine

Ms. Chalfant shares with Ms. Redgrave a certain patrician elegance, a bearing that jibes with Didion’s memories of studying the poet Walter Savage Landor at Berkeley and buying a single gold Tiffany bangle for her daughter. Yet seated just feet away from her audience, in one of a smattering of chairs, the actress is able to make the fragility and desperation that Didion conveyed in her writing more accessible.

“If I can keep her alive John will come back,” Didion remembers reasoning about Michael, explaining the wishful superstitiousness — “magical thinking” is the term often used in psychology — that came to define, for the writer, that stage of mourning commonly known as bargaining. Ms. Chalfant, in character, generally remains poised and conversational; the rare occasions when her frustration flares into anger only reinforce this grieving woman’s cultivated composure.

“‘She’s a pretty cool customer,’” Didion drily recalls a social worker telling the doctor who gave her the bad news about Dunne. Not surprisingly, the text offers an ample supply of gallows wit, as well as self-effacement. More than once, Didion internalizes the critical mantra Dunne would use whenever they fought: “Must you always have the last word?” he’d ask his wife. “Must you always be right?”

If “Magical Thinking” teaches us anything, it’s that when unimaginable loss occurs — when it does, indeed, happen to us — there is no right or wrong way to manage it. The play remains, like the book, a testament to Didion’s confusion and despair and resilience and grace in trying to figure it all out, and for anyone who didn’t know the author personally, this production brings those qualities, literally, closer than ever.

The New York Sun

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