How one makes sense of bereavement is a question that reflects an undeniable, universal conundrum of the human condition. And it is one most of us will only confront when forced to by harsh circumstance.
Famed author Joan Didion could not evade it in 2003, when she lost her husband and sometime literary collaborator John Gregory Dunne and witnessed the sudden, catastrophic illness of their only child, adult daughter Quintana Roo Dunne.
But emerging from that experience, Didion the writer was not silent. She forged “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a slender, potent 2005 memoir that won a National Book Award and has become a best-selling classic in the literature of grief. And a few years later, after her daughter’s untimely death, Didion transformed the book into a Broadway play.
Now, “The Year of Magical Thinking” is being staged at ACT Theatre, under the direction of Victor Pappas. And while the subject of loss and grief are dealt with candidly in the script, it also is dusted with Didion’s wry humor, her scrupulous journalistic observations on psychiatric approaches to grief and her keen portraits of a close-knit, unusual marriage of nearly 40 years and an unconventional but loving family life.
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.” Those were the first words Didion wrote about the events that began in late 2003. She and her husband had just returned home after visiting Quintana Roo in the hospital. She was in a coma, suffering from septic shock due to a pneumonia infection. As the couple were in their New York apartment, eating dinner and chatting, Dunne suddenly slumped over and died instantly, of a heart attack.
A penetrating observer and analyst of American life, Didion (who rose to prominence with “Play It as It Lays,” her 1970 novel of Southern California malaise) wrestled with Dunne’s death the only way she could. In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” she frankly, sparely examined her own experiences and behavior, while also investigating how our society at large deals with such loss.
Didion busied herself immediately with practical tasks. Doing what needed to be done: calling an ambulance, dealing with doctors, making burial arrangements, caring for her ailing daughter. It warded off the pain for a while. But eventually she joined the ranks of “people who have lost someone [and] look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved …”
Analyzing what it all meant, through personal revelation and intellectual probing, became essential to her own well-being. “I found [the book] amazingly easy to write,” Didion told New York Magazine. “It was like sitting down and crying. I didn’t even have the sense that I was writing it. I’m usually very conscious of the rhythm of sentences and how that’s working. I didn’t even give that any thought.”
The “magical thinking” of the title: the mind games of denial we can play, in a “this-all-must-be-a-dream” scenario where the dead will return if only we say certain things, perform certain rituals, think certain thoughts that could bring them back.
When Broadway producer Scott Rudin encouraged Didion to write a play based on her book, Didion embraced the adventure of crafting her first stage script. (She and Dunne wrote numerous films together, including “A Star is Born,” starring Barbra Streisand, and “True Confessions,” based on Dunne’s novel.)
The play version of the memoir is a one-act, 90-minute solo piece, which also contains ruminations on Didion’s daughter (who passed away in 2005). The 2007 Broadway premiere of “The Year of Magical Thinking” starred Vanessa Redgrave, and it, too, has struck a common chord in productions around the U.S. and Europe.
“It’s just one woman on a stage,” Didion told the online magazine Guernica, “so the challenge there is to make you want to continue looking at that woman on the stage.”
For the ACT Theatre production, noted Seattle actor Amy Thone was originally cast in the role of Didion. Thone, though, had to drop out to direct her attention to her own young daughter’s illness — a rare form of cancer that is now being treated. Stepping into the role at ACT is another veteran Seattle stage luminary known to mesmerize an audience: Suzanne Bouchard.
“The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion. July 19-Aug. 11; ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $20-$47; 206-292-7676, acttheatre.org