‘Magical Thinking’ is author Joan Didion’s study of grief

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Sarah Day in APT’s production of The Year of Magical Thinking. The production continues in repertory at the Touchstone Theatre through Oct. 4. — Photo: APT

Anyone who has lost a spouse understands there is no bottom to the well of grief. At best, one can only hope to come to terms with the loss and manage the emotional wreckage.

Author Joan Didion suffered such a loss when her husband John Gregory Dunne, also a prominent writer, died of cardiac arrest. Didion turned her grieving process into an award-winning book in 2005, and she adapted the book for the stage in 2007.

Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which opened in American Players Theatre’s Touchstone Theatre the weekend of June 29, is a remarkable experience that allows audiences to peer into the heart of her agony. The one-woman show, featuring APT veteran Sarah Day as Didion, is an unfettered, uninterrupted study in grieving — a nearly two-hour monologue that lays out the raw details of her loss.

The author’s considerable literary skills and storytelling gifts provide a framework to support her desperate attempts at emotional sobriety. Didion’s reaction to Dunne’s death was delayed for the sake of their daughter Quintana, who lay in intensive care suffering from septic shock brought on by pneumonia. It would be the first of multiple hospitalizations for the young woman.

The author’s “magical thinking” has anthropological roots and is based on the belief that if you hope for something hard enough and do all of the right things in response, a tragic event can be averted. To that end, Didion refused to give away Dunne’s shoes, because he might need them if he returned. She is sane enough not to believe in Dunne’s resurrection, but desperate enough to try anything to prevent her from sliding further into the vortex of grief.

To say that Day is excellent in any role is almost a redundancy. Over the years, the veteran actor has honed her craft to a razor-sharp edge. Her Didion keeps emotion boiling at or near the surface.

As a writer, Didion understood how to bring her readers along and envelope them in the narrative without full-blown bursts of emotion. As an actor, Day also manages that monumental task, with the help of Brenda DeVita’s sensitive direction.

Yu Shibagaki’s stage set is simply a series of stylish, attractive platforms — three smaller ones dressed with lit candles flanking a larger center pedestal dressed with a table, a chair, a few books, a glass of water and the actor. Victoria Deiorio’s original music is played so faintly that at first it sounds as though it’s coming from somewhere else, a reflection perhaps of Didion’s fading memory. Such subtle touches enrich the production.

Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking over a three-month period, completing the work on Dec. 31, 2004, a year and a day after Dunne’s death. Touring with the book after its publication proved “therapeutic” to the healing process, she said at the time.

APT’s expertly staged production provides a healing process of its own for those who’ve had similar experiences. It also offers some preparation for the rest of us, who understand that undergoing such experiences and finding a way to heal from them is only a matter of time.

APT’s production of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking continues in the Touchstone Theatre through Oct. 4.

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