Playwright: Joan Didion At: Court Theatre, 5555 S. Ellis. Tickets: 773-753-4472; www.courttheatre.org; $38-$56. Runs through: Feb. 14
Esteemed writer Joan Didion's 2007 stage adaptation of her 2005 memoir won't be to everyone's taste. It's passionate, intelligent and keenly observed, and Mary Beth Fisher is an outstanding interpreter of Didion's words and persona. But this 100 minute solo work is a meditation rather than a play; a meditation on life, memory and survival rather than on the deaths that inspired it.
In December 2003, Didion's husband ( writer John Gregory Dunne ) dropped dead in front of her in their home. Refusing to grieve, Didion focused on saving the life of their adult daughter ( and only child ) who was fighting a catastrophic illness. She recovered, and Didion wrotein 88 daysa memoir based on her soul-rattling experiences as wife and mother. When Didion's daughter suffered another near-fatal illness less than a year later, Didion again oversaw her recovery, combining resolve with the best care money could buy. Finally, in August 2005, Didion's daughter suffered a third catastrophe and died. In adapting her memoir for the stage, Didion incorporated fresh material about her daughter.
The title, The Year of Magical Thinking, suggests enchantments and fairytale darkness turned to light, but it's none of that. Rather, Didion "magically" reasoned that if she kept her daughter alive then her her husband would return. Part of her process was an obsessive avoidance of physical places and emotional spaces where she and her husband/daughter had shared happiness. If you don't see the present reality of these places, then the happier past remains the only reality.
Eventually, Didion understood her magical thinking was misguided and accepted that "life changes in an instant," as she repeats several times. Stilland here's the pointalthough the destination she wished to reach was impossible, the journey was worthwhile. But it's not a fun journey for her or the audience. The work's tone is warm but solemn, and Didion doesn't pretend to have profound answers. It's not a work of faith, either, in any religious sense.
In enlarging the work to include more material about her daughter, Didion also questions the truth or falsehood of such assurances as "I won't leave you," "You're going to get well," "I won't let anything happen to you." How many times can you will another person to live, if you ever can at all? Again, Didion has no answers but raises the questions as a caution to her audience. "If I'm sane, what happened to me can happen to you."
As Didion, Mary Beth Fisher perfectly balances gravitas against human accessibility, and intellectual vigor against a refusal to patronize. Charles Newell has directed with quiet authority, isolating Fisher on a small and sparely elegant raised platform in a sea of darkness ( John Culbert's scenery, Jennifer Tipton's lighting ) .