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The Magic Behind The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, and her subsequent adaptation of it into a Broadway play (2007), which starred the extraordinary Vanessa Redgrave, was a deeply personal and apparently therapeutic process, helping her to heal from the devastation of the fatal heart-attack of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, after they had returned from the hospital where their daughter was in a coma.

A one-woman show that is notoriously difficult to stage (the Broadway version had Ms. Redgrave seated the entire performance, which apparently was very odd and alienating), can allow other directorial visions.  When actress Janis Stevens saw it in New York, she decided that it should be performed in a more intimate setting, so she brought it to the folk at The Lost Nation Theatre in Vermont, where she performs yearly.  They produced it for her, and she subsequently brought it back to Sacramento at Ray Tatar’s California Stage, where he directed her in it.  And now she tours the nation with it.  This visit to Los Angeles is a first for her.

Tatar had read the book, liked it, but had never thought it could be adapted to the stage.  But when she brought it to him, he, too, realized that it needed to be in a small chamber-theatre, as the Booth Theatre in New York had been entirely too large a space for its intimacies.  And, as an added benefit to them, Didion had actually grown up four blocks from the theatre just north of downtown Sacramento. 

As a director/producer, Tatar, a former administrator of the California Arts Council, is interested in plays about the California experience.  “Unfortunately, Californian’s are not as concerned about their own histories and who these historical peoples were – Easterners have a greater sense of history.  I want to bring those people to life as examples of historical truths.”  So, Ms. Didion’s style, as a non-fiction writer, with heavy political awareness (she had worked as a journalist, on multiple novels and co-written screenplays with her husband), meant TYOMT was perfect for his small – but adventurous – spaces (three theatres in all), where it was a hit for them.  So, when Tatar reached out to his friend and compatriot Lew Dauber, an actor/professor in L.A., to produce, Dauber jumped at the chance to present a quality play at Mount St. Mary’s College/Doheny Campus, and took it to the administrators at the Weekend College, a special branch of Mount St. Mary’s, near downtown L.A.  Dauber, in his early 60s, teaches Hollywood History for the Humanities Department, and Cinema for the Film, Media and Communications Department, along with an annual workshop, The Living History Project.

As he is a working actor and academic, Dauber was always looking for quality dramatic presentations for his campus.  “They hadn’t ever done such a thing – bring in an outside production – in fact, no one could remember any professional theatre on this campus.”  He burrowed in and got collective support from the various departments:  the Campus ministry; the Dean of Graduate Studies; and the Sisters of St. Joseph (CSJ) themselves.  In fact, the school is so excited about this spiritual play coming their way that they opened up the nun’s housing for Ms. Stevens to stay in during the two weeks of performance.  “It turns out there was a long-standing desire to have things happen on campus, to become part of the larger community downtown, so this production will be a start to that desire.”

And why not?  This is a serious and important play, dealing as it does with the affects of death on an individual survivor.  As Dauber states, “It deals with loss and bereavement, from an extremely articulate writer – her sad experiences of loss and how she survived it.” 

In the play, Ms. Didion recalls the traumatic Christmas of 2003, when she and Dunne had gone to the hospital to see their daughter, Quintana, who had only recently been married, and who was ill with the flu that turned into pneumonia, and then into septic shock, which killed her at the age of 21. In deep pain, they returned home, where John Gregory Dunne, a well-known novelist, fell dead from a massive heart-attack.  Six months later, in a doctors-induced coma, Quintana died.

For Tatar, Didion, being a writer, had turned to the printed page to write down these events.  But as she had never thought for an instant that her child would die before her, she developed her memoir/play as a way to deal with these events.  And her interior-monologue is about the grieving over these deaths; and how she finally decided to give away Dunne’s clothes, except for his shoes, as he would need them “when he came back.”  For a journalist to realize how delusional and ludicrous the thinking had become is a large part of what the play explores and how this transmuted-denial turns into positive thought.  “For Ms. Didion, this denial, while understanding that wasn’t logical, allowed her some emotional space to fight the pain behind the truth.  She was the kind of person who wasn’t outlandish in her anguish, creating a logical way for her to remain in control of herself.  And it worked:  her doctor at the time said that ‘she was a cool customer.’”

They opened in Sacramento in October of last year for five weekends.  It was an instantaneous hit.  “We turned people away from the door and those who saw it, we helped them leave the theatre in floods of tears. We all understood why her book had won a Pulitzer Prize.  But it follows her style of writing: the New Journalism, in that it’s written in the first person, with lots of descriptive detail, along with the flashes of insight that come to her with these memories.”

The “magical thinking” occurs in one of her descriptive passages while in the hospital on the upper Westside of Manhattan.  She’s standing in front of a high window, watching the tide come in on the Hudson River, and she makes the connection between the tidal changes with the changes happening for her daughter – the connections between natural events around her.  Not unlike Magical Realism in Latin American theatre, it gives life and greater significance to inanimate objects. 

Tatar is grateful for Stevens’ acting involvement: “you cannot play this character with any theatrical pretense.  The audience has to truly believe that this character has had these experiences and that demands a talented, trained actor.”

Stevens has worked with Tatar five times, as an actor and as a director herself.  She directed G.B. Shaw’s first play drama, Widowers Houses (1892) and he directed her in the premier showing of a play about Julia Morgan (1872-1957), a famous California architect.  Stevens had previously performed in another one-woman show on the late actress, Vivian Leigh, also at California Stage, wherein she played-out other characters, such as Noel Coward and Laurence Olivier. 

Magical Thinking is not a religious play on any level, but it is very much a spiritual one.  This is why it was fortuitous that they found a working chapel on the campus that lends itself to the setting, what with the play’s mystical underpinnings.  For Tatar, it’s an important placement as it is an intimate space (about a hundred seats) and Didion herself had grown up in a Protestant household, with her late husband being a devout Catholic.  “I think she was sort of an agnostic in all her writing, but their religious differences didn’t interfere with their marriage.”

Tatar and Dauber both hope that the audiences how Magical Thinking plays into the life force.  As Tatar explains, for the writer, “the ‘mystical element’ became an ‘ah-hah!’ moment in her life, with her mind taking over during the intense grieving period; those moments talk to us in a natural voice, and, for Joan Didion, it turns out to be a place none of us can know, until we reach it.” 

The Year of Magical Thinking plays two weekends in September, 20th & 21st, and 27th – 28th at 8pm, and Sept 22nd and 29th at 2pm.  At Mount St. Mary’s College, Doheny Campus/Donahue Center, 10 Chester Place, Los Angeles, CA 90007.  Tickets:  213.477.2868 or