By Victoria L. Dammer
Surrounded by frameless modern artwork, still-life and portraitures, and the intimacy of an east side apartment in New York City, Kathleen Chalfant stepped into the character of Joan Didion the second she settled in a maroon velvet chair.
There was little difference between the storytelling of Didion and the performance by Chalfant seated in front of the exquisitely carved marble fireplace. Instead, the audience could have been in Didion’s living room in Malibu as if it was her telling the tale The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion was a master of words and details as she wrote, “This happened on December 30, 2003.” Chalfant becomes the essence of Didion with her intonation of the script.
The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s memoir about her life and thinking during the year after the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. Her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, was also seriously ill during this period of her life. Her recall is meticulous, as Didion fans know she kept notebooks on every minute spent breathing on this earth.
At the beginning of the narrative, as Didion described the time leading up to Dunne’s death, the use of pronouns is the focus; “I got him a drink. I was at the table, making a salad. I looked up.” She relived moments where pronouns showcase her deep-felt pain. Didion had trouble saying death but described the in-depth moments leading to his passing, calling the end “it.” “It” seems to make the realization that death happened, whether Dunne or Quintana, somewhat more manageable.
Although the story has intimate details about every moment of their passing, you can feel that Didion didn’t succumb to the whole emotional realization and loss until she must provide Dunne’s obituary. She recalls the bad dream about the broken man at the time of her daughter’s death.
“‘Don’t let the Broken Man catch me,’ she would say when she was three or four and woke from bad dreams. If the Broken Man comes, I’ll hang onto the fence and not let him take me.'” “She let go of the fence on August 26, 2005,” Didion wrote.
Chalfant exuded Didion’s angst, and the group of onlookers could sense it also.
Didion identified the act of disappearing from hurtful experiences as the vortex effect and goes into this place for protection through many past and present passages in the story.
“What I do next makes no sense at all. I take the detour I cannot take. I lose all control. I stop the car on San Vincente. I let the vortex take me.”
This incident describes a painful time of marital discord in the Dunne-Didion household. Didion tried to escape the marriage with her daughter but never left. She wanted her daughter safe. She felt Quintana was safe with Dunne and stayed.
At the end of the story, like many of us have experienced in the passing of loved ones, Didion admitted, “We all know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a time when we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”
Didion was no longer just an observer of the year of magical thinking; she had lived and thrived as a result, and this is a remarkable piece of literature. The story won the National Book Award. Her insight into life and death was exceptional. Everyone in the room arose with loud, thunderous applause for Didion’s work and the magnificent performance by Chalfant.
The Year of Magical Thinking, adapted from Joan Didion’s best-selling memoir, starring Kathleen Chalfant; conceived and directed by Keen Company Artistic Director Jonathan Silverstein; Jennifer Paar (costume design); Anshuman Bhatia (lighting design); Corinne Woods (line producer); Arthur Atkinson (stage manager); Richard Termine (photography); press promotion by Everyman Agency.
Running time is approximately 90 minutes, without an intermission.
Performances will occur October 19–November 20, 2022, in spaces across New York City. Tickets are available at www.keencompany.org. Standard ticketing fees apply.
This unique theatrical event will be brought directly to the people, staged in non-traditional theater spaces, including living rooms, libraries, and other community spaces throughout New York City Locations and a detailed performance schedule can be found at www.keencompany.org/theyearofmagicalthinking Exact addresses will be provided to ticket buyers on the morning of the performance. Additional performances and locations will be announced at a later date.