In early March, the Book Babes were in New York for the National Book Critic Circle awards. Ellen lives in Portland, Ore., and Margo lives in St. Petersburg, Fla. So, of course, they wanted to do the tourist thing and take in a Broadway play. What better choice for two Book Babes than "A Year of Magical Thinking," which was then in previews. It's based on Joan Didion's superb book about the year she spent coping with her husband's sudden death and her daughter's lingering illness. Joan Didion herself had written the adaptation, and the magnificent Vanessa Redgrave was playing her on stage.
Grabbing the last two tickets available at the Booth Theatre on a Friday night -- second and third rows, stage right -- the Babes could practically see the pores on Redgrave's face. Here are their reactions:
MARGO: Redgrave tried her best to play "Joan Didion," but the one-act, one woman piece didn't work for me.
Although she's a wonderful essayist and screenwriter, Didion's script fell short. Gone was her wonderfully convoluted and artfully repetitious sentences, replaced by direct speechifying that took away the mesmerizing effect of her books. In fact, even Didion seemed to doubt at times the impact of her stage voice: At one point she actually has "Joan Didion" read from her book. Hardly riveting theater.
The casting also was all wrong. Didion is a small and frail-looking woman who nonetheless always comes across to others as a "cool customer," someone used to being in charge. In her year of magical thinking, these categories are thrown out the window as she is flattened by events she cannot control. As I read her book, I exquisitely felt her pain. Unfortunately, despite her considerable acting talents -- and they were certainly in evidence on stage -- Redgrave has too robust a profile to play Didion. I never was really moved during the performance. What I needed to see on stage was a frail person who comes to terms with her own fraility and finally is able to show it to others.
I wish Didion just would have written another memoir.
ELLEN: The play had so many powerful moments, from the opening when Redgrave a.k.a. Didion told the audience that "this is how it will happen for you"; to the description of how one minute her husband was there, and the next minute he was slumped over, lifeless; to the crisis after crisis that ended, finally, with her daughter's death. (Although the book ends before this second tragedy occurs, the play includes it, and structurally I think this provides a rounder story: The stress of their daughter's illness may have the tipping point that caused John Dunne's heart to fail, and this second loss makes the first seem that much more stark. In the end, Didion has lost her entire family.)
All the same, I'll admit that my heart never truly ached, and I was never brought to tears. It was a more cerebral experience than an emotional one.
Didion's writing and personal style -- cool, rational, distant -- may, indeed, be a bad fit for the stage. But the play's themes did stick with me: the hubris which convinces us that we can manage events, and the cruelty of fate. And, finally, the numbness of losing someone who is almost a part of you. I loved the part in the book and the play when Didion/Redgrave states that those who think she and her husband competed as writers did not understand the "lacunae" -- her word -- of marriage. (Lacuna: the missing piece in the manuscript.) So much in marriage is like that. Amen, Joan.