On Dec. 30, 2003, just before supper in their New York apartment, Joan Didion's husband and writing partner of almost 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, stopped talking about how World War I had set the stage for a century of world conflict. He stopped talking completely. Didion says she was making a salad at the table. She saw her husband collapsed over that table.
"Don't do that," she said, sure he was making a joke — "slumping over, pretending to be dead."
Didion's one-woman play, The Year of Magical Thinking, which she adapted from her own memoir of the same title, is receiving its Los Angeles premiere by Bright Eyes Productions at Hollywood's Elephant Theatre.
"He fell onto the table, then to the floor. There was a dark liquid pooling beneath his face. Within what I now know to have been exactly five minutes, two ambulances came. The crews worked on the living room floor for what I now know to have been exactly 45 minutes."
It's no coincidence that Didion — a journalist, novelist, screenwriter and essayist (The White Album, Slouching Towards Bethlehem) — places in italics the repeated phrase "I now know." Nor is it coincidence that her words now and know are so close in lettering and proximity to each other in each sentence. Among her many talents, Didion is a linguist.
"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear," she wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1976.
"Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends," she wrote after Dunne died. After that, she stopped writing for a very long time, she says. Perhaps there are periods when we simply don't want to fathom what our experiences mean.
Upon her return to writing, not trusting her own recollections from her state of shock, Didion needed to verify the sequence of events.
She chased down the documents: the Emergency Department Nursing Documentation Sheet, the Nursing Flow Chart, the Physician's Record. She needed the paperwork with the logs of when the paramedics arrived, of when they transported her husband to the hospital, in order to grasp the unfolding of time, in real time rather than remembered time, which is often more invented than remembered.
Hospital staff referred to Didion as a "cool customer." But Didion explains that her absence of histrionics, and her fastidious attention to detail through the ushering of her husband and his memory from this life into another, of transitioning him from present to past, was not to be confused with acceptance of his death.
Rather, the reason for her calm was the belief that he might just return. She could empty the closets of all his clothes but not his shoes. In case he returned, he would need his shoes. To surrender his shoes would have been to acknowledge the unbearable, that he would never return.
Even signing an approval for his autopsy, and even considering the possibility of witnessing his autopsy (Didion had previously seen autopsies as research for her writing), there remained an open corridor in her heart she imagined him walking through, from the story of his death into the reality of their life, returning perhaps to finish one of their screenplays. And this ancient bargain of "if" — "If I keep his shoes, he might return" — is what she means by "magical thinking."
One day, almost two years later, she realized that she had stopped hoping Dunne might return. The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion's autobiographical and philosophical diagnosis of the process by which she surrendered that hope.
As if the crisis of losing a spouse wasn't bad enough, amidst that grief, Didion's daughter with Dunne, Quintana, continued to suffer from the neurological dysfunction that landed her in the ICU in New York just before her father's death, and would ultimately take her life, too. In fact, Didion postponed Dunne's funeral for a month until Quintana could recover sufficiently from a medically induced coma to attend. And so, while grieving for her husband, Didion was continually on the verge of losing their daughter. This, too, is woven into the play.
Why tell a story of such anguish — to us?
"I'm telling you what you need to know," she warns in the play. It's an admonishment.
"You see me on this stage, you sit next to me on the plane, you run into me at dinner, you know what happened to me.
"You don't want to think it could happen to you.
"That's why I'm here."
Judy Jean Berns plays Didion in a surgically studied performance. (Vanessa Redgrave played the role on Broadway, directed by David Hare.) In this production, under David Robinson's direction, Berns is the antithesis of emotive, avoiding the trap of melodrama.
But the strategy also runs the risk of keeping the drama at arm's length. With the exception of two or three moments when tears well in Berns' eyes, she is, in fact, the embodiment of the "cool customer" in the hospital waiting room. With pixie-short silver hair, the diminutive Berns wears a thin lavender dress and dance shoes, sitting in or standing by a wicker chair next to a table holding a glass of water, some index cards and a couple of books — one on neuropathology. Behind her hangs a sky-blue scrim with subtle streaks of white, like a California sky. There are almost no sound effects, just the subtle crashing of waves near play's end.
The play hangs almost entirely on Didion's words, and on Berns' capacity to imbue them with the ruminative wisdom that is Didion's calling card. When Quintana was in a coma after Dunne's death, Didion ordered the hospital to shut off the TV. Didion didn't want her to learn about her father's demise from CNN. The next day, CNN was back on again, and Didion raised hell. The following day, she walked in the room to find a note on the TV, which was indeed off: "Dead father, no TV."
In reporting that story, there's a twinkle in Berns' eye, a sly twist of the upper lip, affirming the story's perverse humor. In this way, Berns keeps probing that ever-so-delicate terrain between the maudlin and the glib. The rendition is intelligent and thoughtful. It commands you to listen and absorb the nuances of anguish. There is no invitation to wallow, and no attempt by Berns, or Didion, to do so.
This is not a drama — despite the dramatic agony of love and loss that's the wellspring of most dramas. Instead, this is a meditation on that drama and it can be appreciated only on those terms.
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Yet one wonders if each of the play's sections were more tautly defined, and its transitions marked more strongly, the parts that make up the whole wouldn't blur into each other as they now do. This would be a subtle but powerful sharpening — very much possible in the show's extended run — that would transform what's now a flat and sandy beachhead where Didion does battle between meaning and meaninglessness into a slope leading toward the horizon that seems to be Didion's destination: solace.
In the play, she reads from the book that inspired it: "This in turn enabled me to find meaning in the Episcopal litany, most accurately in the words as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, which I interpreted as a literal description of the constant changing of the earth, the unending erosion of the shores and the mountains, the inexorable shifting of the geological structures that could throw up mountains and islands and could just as reliably take them away. No eye was on the sparrow. No one was watching me."
She repeats the litany, "World without end. ... Do we get more comfort than that?"
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING | By Joan Didion, adapted by Didion for the stage from her memoir | Presented by Bright Eyes Productions at Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through Oct. 14 | (323) 960-7774 | plays411.com/magicalthinking