THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING: Nancy Carroll trusts to the magic of Didion's thinking
"This happened on December 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago, but it won't when it happens to you. And it will happen to you." That's how the character of Joan Didion begins in The Year of Magical Thinking (at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through January 31), the one-woman show adapted by Didion from the National Book Award–winning 2005 memoir sprung from the sudden death at the dinner table of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. It's not the way Didion's book begins, with some "cool customer" (as a social worker dubbed the author the night of Dunne's death) of a Cassandra predicting unpredictable doom for us all. But it does introduce an act of bearing self-reflexive witness — to a universal, almost unbearable, yet oddly calculable experience with which the famously exacting author grapples by means of linguistic precision and the disordered, superstitious thinking of the title.
Some have castigated the theater piece — which played on Broadway last year in a production directed by David Hare and starring Vanessa Redgrave — for not having the same arc as the book. But for my money, the play balances a scalpel-worthy dissection of grief with a cautionary tale about the illusoriness of control. And in the Boston premiere under the near-still baton of Eric C. Engel, two-time Elliot Norton Award winner Nancy E. Carroll, armed with little more than a regal scarf and a formal chair, elegantly stirs Didion's mixture of anguished disorientation and wry, journalistic concision. This is not an easy theater piece, but it is both steely and profound.
Carroll, as Didion, enters the largely bare parlor of a playing space toting her book — a sharply reported account of the year following Dunne's fatal heart attack, during which the widowed literary luminary alternated ruthless management of both her own fact-gathering behavior and the mysterious, coincident illness of the pair's only child, Quintana, with the secretive, irrational bargaining she calls magical or "if" thinking. For example, if she holds on to Dunne's shoes rather than disposes of them, he will be able to use them when he "comes back." After all, she observes upon viewing the corpse, "He does not look as if he needs to be dead."
The 90-minute theater piece differs from the memoir in ways other than its relative slimness. It's more of a linear journey. Apart from a recurrent echo of the mediæval Sir Gawain, there is less literary reference. There is less flashback to the shared life that preceded Dunne's death. And since Quintana, who had already knocked twice at death's door, fell ill a third time and succumbed just months before the publication of the book, Didion's double loss becomes the focus of the theater piece. The character doesn't just realize that we cannot control our fates and that "no eye is on the sparrow." She also comes to wonder whether the reassurance, the myth of safety, that we offer our children is a lie tantamount to other, more mystical forms of magical thinking.