Every time she’s on camera in the Netflix documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, Didion raises her right arm. Unable to control the trembling, she waves it back and forth as if she’s casting a spell to ward off bad news. Her voice also quavers. You can see her angular bones poking through the fabric that’s loosely draped around her body. The film is a portrait of the journalist’s past successes and how they lead up to her present fragilities, familiarizing the audience with the glamorous aspects of her work as well as her more personal losses. The vulnerability Didion displays on camera isn’t intended to be deliberately manipulative even as the footage the director captures is raw and moving.
Didion, a Sacramento native and late-in-life Celine model, is probably best-known for devastating novels like Play It As It Lays and for New Journalism essay collections like Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. After her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died in 2003, she wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir about her months of grieving. She focuses the reader’s attention on how she does and does not cope with the absence of her husband — also a journalist as well, and Didion’s frequent collaborator — as well as that of their daughter, Quintana Roo, who had fallen ill with pneumonia and was unconscious when Dunne died. (She recovered, only to injure herself the following year by falling on an airport tarmac.) As Didion was writing the book, Quintana’s condition failed to improve and she, too, died in 2005 after Didion had finished the manuscript. She then wrote a second book about her daughter’s life and death, Blue Nights.
Didion adapted both memoirs into the one-woman monologue, The Year of Magical Thinking (at the Aurora Theatre Company through July 21). To play the character “Joan Didion,” the actress cast in the part has to decide whether or not to imitate the writer or to summon up the experience of her grief. In the original production, Vanessa Redgrave’s voice naturally evoked Didion’s afflicted state of mind. At Aurora, Stacy Ross’ approach departs from an homage, or imitation, of the person she’s portraying. Instead, she holds the audience’s attention by leading with her idea of resilience — and by moving from one part of the stage to another.
As Didion, Ross recounts the night of Dunne’s death. Earlier in the day, they had visited Quintana in the hospital. When they got back to their apartment, the long-married couple sat down to eat dinner. While she’s mixing the salad, Didion writes, “John was talking, then he wasn’t.” What she does so skillfully in the book is to combine her detached observational eye — the one that examines every detail of whatever her subject happens to be — with a first person account of being a witness to her husband’s death. It’s an unsentimental approach that becomes increasingly affecting as she turns that keen eye on her own psychology.
She describes her mind’s inability to accept the loss, his absence, as “magical thinking.” A friend suggests that Didion give away Dunne’s clothes. This seems like a reasonable idea to her, but she stops herself. She can’t give his shoes away, she reasons, because he’ll need them when he comes back. That encapsulates the process of mourning. The griever is deluded and buoyed by the hope that the beloved will, someday soon, make his return. But as the weeks and months pass, so do her delusions and, sadly, her hopes. She also must turn her attention to her ailing daughter.
Because the play condenses both books, the narrative Didion develops about her husband in the first memoir quietly retreats as Quintana’s story comes to the fore. The Year of Magical Thinking then loses sway to Blue Nights, a memoir that’s held together by a rash of (understandable) guilt-ridden, maternal confessions. Didion blames herself for Quintana’s illness and early death in a way that she doesn’t, and shouldn’t, hold herself accountable for her husband’s. In the second book, she even questions her career choices. Did she choose her writing one too many times over caring for her adopted daughter? But none of this dramatically rich material enters into the play.
In order to keep the audience interested in her accounts of hospital visits and changing diagnoses, Ross moves about the stage sitting in a chair or facing different sections of the audience. To suggest a passing reflection, an ethereal music played in the background. The subdued lighting frequently turned a brown, rocky background into a deep ocean blue. That blue transports Ross’ Didion back to California where she and Dunne and Quintana lived for over two decades. She comforts herself with her analyses but they’re also acting as a line of defense to keep her emotions at bay. Ross shows us that Didion is strong enough to repress her tears — until finally, the accumulation of heartache breaks her down.
The Year of Magical Thinking, through July 21, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. $35-$70; 510-843-3822 or auroratheatre.org.