"It will happen to you. You think it won't, but it will."
The admonition could refer to a number of things, from falling in love to getting old. But writer Joan Didion, whose words these are, was speaking specifically about experiencing the sudden death of someone very close. In her case, it was her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. But her experience, and her words, can be generalized to all who experience profound losses, and that includes all of us—if not yet, then eventually.
Winding Road Theater Ensemble opened its new season last week with a simple but insightful production of The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion's adaptation of her book of the same name, for which she received the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005. She was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the category of Biography/Autobiography. Her admonition constitutes the first words of her book, as well as of the play. "It will happen to you."
Didion has distinguished herself as an author of novels and essays, and as a journalist as well. This year she will be honored at the PEN Center awards, which honor writers who create a bridge between writing as a creative act and as a political act. This certainly defines Didion, who is known for her political and social commentary, as well as for her intensely personal—but never sentimental—discussions of her own life. She lived in California for 20 years with Dunne, producing several screenplays together. They had a child, Quintana, who, ironically, lay in the New York hospital, comatose as a result of septic shock, when the ambulance carrying Dunne arrived.
The play is a straightforward monologue, with Didion's character, played here by Toni Press-Coffman, addressing the audience directly. There's no high drama, just Didion's own account of how she experienced the time after Dunne's sudden death, with the parallel difficulty of her daughter's dire illness.
In her account of her memory of the course of events that evening at the hospital, Didion desires details of the medical pronouncements. She remembers being introduced to a social worker, always an ominous sign, she is later told. She recounts the exact time it took for the ambulance to reach their apartment. She recalls being called a "cool customer." She gathers these details with fervor, with relentlessness. Not only do these details keep her from registering her own grief, but they also present a kind of unconscious hope, a way of thinking magically. If she knows these details, he will not be dead. If she understands the scientific facts of what happened to him, he will not be dead. If this, or that, he will not be dead.
Didion gives us a glimpse into what we do every day, unconsciously, and certainly about things much less dire than death. In a way, she validates us.
The success of this production lies with the choices of director Christopher Johnson and Press-Coffman, who simply allow Didion to speak. There's no over-reaching. I don't think we get a real sense of who Didion might be beyond the sometimes stunning insight revealed in her recall of the details of the night of Dunne's death and its aftermath. I don't think Press-Coffman's performance illuminates, or gives us a greater understanding of, who Didion, as a personality, might be. There doesn't seem to be an attempt to interpret a character as much as there's a commitment to deliver her eloquence. Because this is Didion, this is enough.
Johnson has chosen to use the small stage in the Cabaret Theatre, which works perfectly for this piece. The set, designed by Johnson, consists of a blue wall onto which has been attached a dining table, set for dinner, and chairs, so that the wall actually becomes the floor. It's a simple but powerful image of a world turned on its side, askew. Other than this, there are only two chairs in which Press-Coffman can actually sit, which suggest different locations. The lighting, which changes frequently, is a bit fussy. Although its purpose was to suggest or to underscore place or mood, it calls attention to itself, which is distracting. We don't need so much. Press-Coffman and Didion give us most of what we need.
Press-Coffman is dressed simply, but is barefoot, which seems an odd choice. She at one time drops to the floor to sit cross-legged, reading from Didion's book. This also seems odd, since Didion was in her 70s when the book was written.
An addition to the play not from the book is much more about Didion's daughter and her illness and death. The book was written in 88 days, beginning in October 2003, just months after Dunne died in January. It was published in 2005. Quintana died shortly before the book's publication. Didion did not wish to revise the book, and consequently wrote another book, Blue Nights, which focuses on Quintana. Including some of this additional material in the play only intensifies our response to how Didion was able to process her experience for herself, and, consequently, for us.
Winding Road gives us a quiet experience that resonates richly. To share it with others in a theater setting makes it special.