by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
A Classic Theatre company of St. Augustine, Florida opened a two-weekend run of Joan Didion’s play “The Year of Magical Thinking” on September 23. The production will continue September 30, October 1 at 7:30 pm and October 2 at 2:00 pm at the Gamache-Koger Theatre in the Student Center of Flagler College in downtown St. Augustine.
Novelist Joan Didion wrote the highly acclaimed memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking” which was praised by critics far and wide. She adapted the book to a one-woman play which opened at the Booth Theatre in New York in 2007 with Vanessa Redgrave portraying Ms. Didion.
This is the story of Ms. Didion losing her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, to a heart attack and her daughter Quintana to pancreatitis, within a period of two years.
The play begins in December, 2003 as she relates her return with her husband to their New York apartment after visiting their hospitalized daughter. As they were dining, John suddenly slumped in his chair with his hand raised. It was so startling that she though he was playing a joke.
Here Joan begins to pursue comprehension of the full meaning of her loss. She recalls the paramedics arriving and what they did in detail. She penned her most quoted lines “Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” With eloquence, she paints pictures of her life with John and their daughter, taking us to such places as California and the beaches of Malibu. For a year after his death, she engages in magical thinking; perhaps he is not really dead, perhaps she can do things or perhaps she can avoid doing things that will help him return. She saves his shoes because he’ll need them when he returns.
The first act of the play covered the contents of the book (very closely as we were told by a member of the audience who had read it).
The second act is devoted to the playwright’s memories of her daughter, who was thirty-nine at the time of her death in August of 2005, and her battle for health and happiness. Joan even recalls the exact names of the medications given to her.
The play runs about 95 minutes total for both acts with an intermission of 15 minutes. Ms. Didion is a wordsmith and can turn an elegant phrase and we found the monologue mesmerizing.
We can’t think of an actress who could capture the inner feelings of this character better than Anne Kraft. The male half of Dual Critics recalls her marvelous performance as Blanche in “A Street Car Named Desire” at Theatre Jacksonville some years ago when she returned to her home town of St. Augustine after a number of years of acting in New York. She won the Best Actress Award for that role and was directed by Emmy Award winning actor Michael Emerson, who is staring in a new series on CBS this fall. In ensuing years, Anne, a co-founder of Limelight Theatre, was busy helping with administrative tasks and some directing.
Ms. Kraft dressed simply, in a deep blue top with white slacks. Stage furnishings included a chair and a table, topped with a water pitcher, a book, and a spray of orchids. An actress on a stage with only a chair and a table might be very static, but not so in the hands of Ms. Kraft and Director Christine Fogarty. Ms. Kraft moved very naturally around the table at times while in thought, and even sat on the floor as if she were on the beach as she described visits to Malibu and Hawaii. Technical Director Carl Liberatore contributed snippets of sound effects, like waves and water splashing against rocks and even fireworks with flashing lights to illustrate the scenes Ms. Kraft so vividly paint for us with words. Even the lighting subtly changed to capture moods.
This is a play that provokes thought. We found ourselves wishing there had been a talkback after the show, because the audience no doubt included a number of people who had lost parents, spouses, and children and had gone through the process of coping with grief and trying to readjust their lives, and would have had many insights to share.
Now we know that this all sounds like serious material and it is but there are surprisingly a number of moments of humor. For example, when her husband died she knew that news shows like CNN would carry it since he was a well-known author. Joan did not want her hospitalized daughter to learn about his death until a later time, and did not want her to learn about it from television coverage. She found the staff of the hospital had posted a handwritten sign in large letters on the TV in her daughter’s room: “NO TV, FATHER DIED.”
This exploration of the anatomy of grief is well acted and very moving in the hands of the talented Anne Kraft and well worth your consideration.
The Year of Magical Thinking
by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM