Peggy Sue Dunigan

Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking

By - Oct 18th, 2009 05:59 pm
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Elizabeth Norment plays Joan Didion in “Year of Magical Thinking.” Photos by Jay Westhauser, courtesy the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

How does a person keep a loved one safe from illness, accident and sudden death that occur too soon?

The idea of “keeping loved ones safe” reverberates through the evening in Joan Didion’s  stage adaptation based on her award-winning memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. Her play of the same name opened this weekend at The Rep’s Stiemke Theater, with guest actor Elizabeth Norment playing the author.

Throughout, Didion/Norment speaks directly to the audience from her serene living room in New York. It’s a simple set, with two bookcases symmetrically defining the elegant setting.

Didion relates, through memory musings punctuated by present-day facts, how her husband, the novelist, screenwriter and literary critic John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack while their adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, was in a coma. Quintana herself died a year later. Norment delves into Didon’s grief and memories. She characterizes her coping mechanism as “magical thinking.”

According to the character, magical thinking allows the mind to imagine scenarios that change the outcomes of devastating situations. Didion/Norment traces this thought process through nine sequential scenes.  Between them, the lights dim and chapter headings are projected onto the backdrop, evoking a book on tape with a few visual clues. The opportunity for stage action is limited; Norment walks from a chair to a sofa and occasionally to a bookcase.

On opening night Norment appeared a bit tentative, as if hesitant to immerse herself in Didion’s grief, understating the intense emotion of the story’s framework. Didion herself might be a cool customer, who tries to over-manage these tragic events.

Elizabeth Norment as The Rep's Joan Didion

Elizabeth Norment as The Rep’s Joan Didion

A more explicit transformation in Norment’s emotions from the first chapter to the last might deliver greater dramatic impact. And an early introduction to Joan Didion herself might bring those unfamiliar into her private world sooner. She is a fascinating woman with unparalleled literary skills, and her gift for expression is what made her memoir so successful. Unfortunately, Didion’s own adaptation to script leaves insufficient opportunity for the actor to let the audience inside her mind.

When Didion explains the traumas in her daughter’s recurring illness she speaks relatively more fervently. Yet Norment remains cool and sticks with director John Sipes’ deliberate pacing. Just a few humorous lines lighten the overwhelming sadness of this 97 minutes in the theater. Nevertheless, Norment’s talent and experience engage the audience remarkably well.

Each individual copes with death’s inevitability differently, especially “when life changes in an instant … an ordinary instant.” No one can hold a loved one close enough or tight enough to protect him or her from sudden death.

The opening-night audience responded with a standing ovation, though the play’s final lines were restrained, more about distancing emotion than expressing it. No warmth or reassurance console the spirit when Didion accepts death’s aftermath.

What do we learn from her experience? Perhaps we learn, along with Didion, that no magical thinking dispels the pain of loss and the humbling reality of grief.

The Rep’s Stiemke Theater presents The Year of Magical Thinking until Nov. 8.
For information call: 414 224-9490. The Rep in Depth begins 45 minutes before the play.

Categories: Theater

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