“The Year of Magical Thinking” at the Aurora Theatre

Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” at the Aurora Theatre

Carol Benet

Joan Didion is a famous essayist, novelist, journalist and script writer.  She wrote her memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking” after her husband John Gregory Dunne’s sudden death. The  book was made into a Broadway show starring Vanessa Redgrave in 2007.  This one woman show now plays at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley with Stacy Ross in the role of Didion.

Ross is one of the best actresses in the Bay Area.  She beings the story telling of how she and John were deciding whether to eat in or out that night. Choosing to stay in she built a cozy fire.  When they were sitting at the dinner table, he suddenly collapsed, only to die of heart trouble shortly afterwards. A doctor whom he visited earlier called his heart problem a “widow-maker”.

With painstaking detail, so typical of Didion, she describes exactly how many minutes it took for two ambulances to arrive (5), how many blocks to the hospital (6) and how she only realized he died when she was introduced to the social worker.  Other such details flood the script. What were the the exact drugs administered, the was view from the hospital window and so forth?

Didion’s fame as a writer is due to her exactitude and her beautiful words and composition. She is honest and detailed in her articles about war-torn Latina countries that she covered for various magazines, in her essays about the most interesting phenomena in our contemporary life (for one shopping malls in “The White Album”), the life and death of their adopted daughter Quintana, their years in California.  Didion graduated from UC Berkeley where Henry Nash Smith, renowned professor in the Department of English, praised her work.  She won an internship  at “Vogue” and then went into the world of “new journalism” that she helped define.

The one and half hour play is relentless in its sadness.  Stacy/Didion goes through the trivia of her long married life with Dunne, a successful writer of novels and crime reporting.  They worked at home and were always together thus there were frictions.  Ross/Didion repeats the lines that an exasperated Dunne often  complained, “Must you always have to have the last word?  Must you always be right?”  Theirs was a troubled marriage at times.  Quintana’s illness and stay at a hospital at the same time her mother is dealing with the details other father’s death  add another layer of grief. Dunne’s and Quintana’s death two years later left  Didion in a hopeless state, one that she relates in the play.

For all their Catholicism there is not much consolation with churchly answers to her grief.  She starts the play by saying that she is “here to tell you about the death of a loved one” and that she is giving you a “lesson for survival”.  Ross/Didion comes right up to the audience, seated on three sides of the small stage, and addresses people directly, looking right into their eyes.  She is very good at this and the intimate Aurora Theatre is perfect for such a technique.

She makes much of the dramatic moments with little gestures punctuating the story.  When she tells of Quintana’s and her nursemaid’s trips to the lobby of the hotel where they were staying to check out the action, Stacy/Didion adds a little hand motion indicating jazzy dancing. Small movements like this enlighten what could be an interminable dirge of a script.

Kent Dorsey’s scenic design is simple. He creates a backdrop of unequal and almost jagged large pavement stones as if in a garden in the upper east side apartment where they lived in New York.  Kurt Landisman’s lighting is very important as Ross is continually moving around the stage on its three adjoining levels.  The light lowers  when she talks about particularly sad thoughts.  Valera Coble’s costume for Didion,  a long turquoise top over leggings punctuated by a large single stone necklace, all California touches, are reminiscent of their Malibu days.  Cliff  Caruthers’ sound subtly reflects the ocean waves or adds just low rumbles that accentuate the script almost imperceptibly. Nancy Carlin’s direction is fine in this difficult play that could be very monotonous and draining for both actress and audience. Anyway,  how entertaining can a play about grief be?

Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” at the Aurora Theatre runs through July 21, 2019.  Tickets from auroratheatre.org or 510 843 4822.


About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →