The Stages of Grief: Joan Didion’s somber “Year of Magical Thinking” plays at Court Theatre

(Michael Brosilow, courtesy of Court Theatre)

“Can’t you just let things go?” the character Joan Didion exclaims in “The Year of Magical Thinking” at Court Theatre. Didion, played by Mary Beth Fisher, recalls the countless times her husband, John Gregory Dunne, said just that to her after a fight. “Can’t you just let things go? Do you always have to have the last word?” The play, which Didion adapted from her 2005 memoir, is just that: the last word. With a beautifully crafted script, Didion narrates the trauma of being a survivor while loved ones die, and what it means to finally let go.

The lights open on an empty elevated platform marked only by a small wooden table with a coffee cup and flowers atop it. There is also a simple chair. The performance is already an intimate one. Soon thereafter, Fisher as Didion walks onstage and says, “This happened on December 30, 2003. This may seem like a while ago, but it won’t when it happens to you. And it will happen to you.” And so begins the story of the deaths of Didion’s husband and daughter.

In the ninety-minute play, performed without an intermission, Didion chronicles the two-year period in which both John and Quintana, her daughter, die. Unable to simply list facts, Didion constantly interrupts herself with lists of memorized medications and neurological terms, long heart-breaking silences, and memories. Didion refers to these moments of consumptive memory as “the vortex.” In the vortex, the backlights of the stage shine directly onto the audience with blinding intensity. In the vortex, John still works in his office in their Malibu home, and Quintana’s hair is still green from pool chlorine. In the vortex, one dwells on life and health, not death and sickness. But eventually the lights refocus on the stage, and we are brought back to the drips of IVs in the sterile ICU at Beth Israel Medical Center’s Singer Division.

One reason we share Didion’s horror and sadness is she is among the world’s greatest observers. And here, she observes her own life in exacting detail.

On the page, Didion’s prose is extraordinary in its calmness in light of chaos and tragedy, but onstage a different dynamism is required. And Fisher has found it. With an oversized silk blouse and a long scarf draped around her shoulders, Fisher moves across the stage with an ease that causes you to forget that it is one. While Fisher’s energy on stage feels different than Didion’s on the page, she, like Didion, has captured the power of detail. From fidgeting with a bracelet to speaking with a quiver in her voice, Fisher brings life to both the truly funny moments and truly tragic ones.

There is no greater special effect than a well-paired director and actor. In Charles Newell’s production of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a minimal set is the scene of a nuanced drama. Throughout the play, the greatest changes are Fisher’s movements around the chair. As she jumps forward and backwards in time, Fisher’s Didion sits and stands, she moves the chair left and right, and she faces each section of the audience. Eventually, with her back to the audience, sitting in the chair she has moved so many times to punctuate the unfolding chronology of the play, Fisher’s Didion silently settles into its cushion. She seems to have tired of moving around. A soft melody plays. With her back to the audience, Fisher’s Didion spends the last few minutes of the play as a witness to her own story. This is how Newell’s production ends and this is how Didion finally “lets things go.”
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Through February 14. Wednesdays, 10:30am and 7:30pm; Thursdays, 7:30pm; Fridays, 8pm; Saturdays, 3pm and 8pm; Sundays, 2:30pm and 7:30pm.