January 22, 2010
I’m sitting in a Saturday morning tech rehearsal for The Year of Magical Thinking and, as usual, I’m trying not to make too much noise. Across the house from me is the design team, the director, and the technical staff, their faces ghostly from the light of their personal computer screens. They’re all watching the stage as Josh, the assistant director, marks out a simple, elegant choreography with a half-smirk on his face as Mary Beth Fisher, the actor playing the character of Joan, delivers her lines from a seat in the house. It’s an exercise designed so that Mary Beth can comprehend the new context of light, space, sound, and (yes) video projection that she’s been recently loaded-into this weekend. Josh, for the moment, is her sole understudy, carefully reconstructing her blocking down to the inch as Mary Beth speaks the lines to herself. It’s a strange piece of performance art, but an oddly fitting embodiment of Joan Didion’s prose: formal, structural, a kind of dire game of Twister. “Half-step downstage, Josh,” directs Jennifer Tipton, the lighting designer. He moves.
In late 2004, Joan Didion began writing about the recent death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the ongoing illness of her daughter, Quintana. Those early notes—some composed at the height of bewildering grief—became the book The Year of Magical Thinking. The manuscript was already finished and sent to the printers when Didion’s daughter passed away in August 2005. Published barely over a month later, the book became an immediate bestseller and garnered a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography. In late 2006, at the encouragement of producer Scott Rudin, Didion began work on a play based on The Year of Magical Thinking. The play retained certain passages from the book, but it also included certain new material, including an account of Quintana’s death and the aftermath. For Didion, an author of five novels, eleven works of nonfiction, and a handful of Hollywood screenplays, it was her first piece of writing for the theater. Produced in London in 2007 with David Hare directing and Vanessa Redgrave in the role of Joan, The Year of Magical Thinking: The Play has been produced on Broadway and at regional theaters throughout the United States.