The Year of Magical Thinking
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 11, 2007
There is Great Acting; but then maybe once a season there is great acting—an incandescent performance, fired from within, where the actor fuses with the character and reveals all that's going on under the surface, in the heart and mind and spirit.
So it is with The Year of Magical Thinking, in which Vanessa Redgrave offers what will undoubtedly be the finest performance this year on Broadway (though another one of this quality is certainly welcome!). For 95 minutes, during most of which she is simply seated in a chair centerstage, she held me transfixed; it was only after she at last stood up near the end of the show that I realized what an astonishing accomplishment that was. Redgrave (using a letter-perfect American accent) speaks the words that Joan Didion has given her with clarity and sensitivity and comprehension, overcoming the very writerly nature of the script with her remarkable technique and insight. If you care about acting, or weren't sure that Redgrave is, as she's often said to be, one of the greatest actors of our time, then see The Year of Magical Thinking.
Redgrave plays Didion, or the version of Didion that the writer has chosen to put before us in this script, which is based on her recent book of the same name. The play begins in late December 2003, on the night when Didion's husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly and quickly of heart failure just as the couple was sitting down to dinner. It then traces the next year-and-a-half of Didion's life, which was marked first by the "magical thinking" of the title—the notion that private rituals and observances could yield a sort of magic and bring her husband back to life—and then by a second personal catastrophe, when her 38-year-old daughter Quintana became seriously ill.
The play is about working through grief by trying to master it; indeed, some of the most moving moments in Redgrave's performance come when her character reaches the precipice of giving in to what she's feeling, only to pull herself back, forcibly, at the last second, regaining control so she can continue telling us her story. The brilliance of Redgrave's work here is that she reveals what's behind the words and between the lines of Didion's text, for these moments show us indelibly what is lost by such mastery over the emotions. A motif in the script is a remembered chiding from Dunne to not always need to be right and to have the last word; to let go. Redgrave and Didion teach us the cost of living a life in that way, one full of tension and balance but seemingly lacking in harmony.
The script is very literary, and overwritten: the ending, in particular, seems to take about ten minutes too long to finally arrive once it's been heralded by Redgrave's abrupt emergence from the chair where she's been telling us her character's story. The play is filled with anecdotes about Didion's husband and daughter and some of their friends and some key aspects of her career; it's darkly funny in places, notably in the deadpan (and 100% authentic) gallows-humor descriptions of coping with having a loved one in the hospital.
What's absent is the joy that, one supposes, has come only infrequently and fleetingly to Didion. There's a moment in the center of the play when, flying back with her ill daughter from California to New York, Didion allows herself a happy memory of long ago. The lighting shifts (all of Jean Kalman's work here is masterful) and Redgrave's face turns radiant and loses decades of lines and worry: the play's protagonist is, just this once, happy and spectacularly beautiful (and why should not those two ideas go hand in hand?) Talk about magical thinking: Redgrave and her collaborators, including director David Hare, remind us that it's when we forget who we are and what we think we're supposed to have/be, and instead embrace what's before us and around us, that the magic actually happens.