Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. – Joan Didion
“It will happen to you,” author Joan Didion (played by Barbara Berlovitz) says in the opening scene of Didion’s own adaptation of her 2004 novel The Year of Magical Thinking (at nimbus theatre, 1517 Central Avenue NE, Minneapolis, through May 21st). “The details will be different, but it will happen to you.”
These words, matter-of-factly delivered with a knowing air of wisdom, set the tone for a detailed story of loss– with an emphasis on the details. Over the course of 90 minutes Didion tells of the sudden death of first her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, and then, too soon afterwards, the death of her only daughter Quintana. (Those who have read the book will note the book deals only with John’s death and Quintana’s illness – Quintana died between the time Didion finished the book and its publication.)
Didion tells us her first instinct after her husband’s death was to try and master the event by mastering the facts around it. The concept of “magical thinking” relates to how she tried to keep him alive by thinking him alive. If she just keeps his shoes, for example, then he can come back. Such feelings point to the temporary madness inherent in grief, and grief as temporary mental illness is just one of the themes at work here.
I had some apprehension when I first saw nimbus was tackling this show. I was excited because I’d enjoyed the book and felt it to be not only good but important (it’s a key piece of American grief literature), but concerned by the fact that it would be a one-woman show. I was assured, however, when I saw it would be Barbara Berlovitz (co-founder of the defunct Theatre del la Jeune Lune) in the starring role. As I had hoped, Berlovitz captures the detachment of Didion’s narrative with finesse while still keeping the audience’s attention focused on every word. Director Liz Neerland, to her credit, says she had Berlovitz clearly in mind when she decided to do this play.
That this show is more than a dramatic reading, even if much of the dialogue is direct from the book, is made clear by a short scene late in the play where Berlovitz dons glasses, picks up a hardcover version of the book and reads. Being read to and being told something are different things, and this scene demonstrates the contrast. This production succeeds because you get a sense of direct, intimate sharing. The house was small the night I saw the show, so my feeling that Berlovitz was looking directly at me and speaking to me directly on occasion was probably not even my imagination.
Subtle scene differentiation in what is essentially one large single scene on the minimalistic set by Josh Cragun (I could even imagine this play working in a black box with just a stool and small table) is punctuated by music and sound effects by Jake Davis and extremely subtle lighting changes by Mitchell Frazier.
Not just a show for people who have experienced loss, The Year of Magical Thinking is for everyone, because everyone will experience loss in at some point. “It will happen to you.”