Radar Redux.com is expanding the traditional concept of journalism, to cover a wide array of Baltimore Arts and Culture.
When I heard that The Strand was doing a production of A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, I literally jumped with excitement. I started reading the book by the same name over the summer and the little yellow and turquoise paperback has remained on my bedside table for the last six months. I was inspired to read more of Didion’s work after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem for a United States history course last semester. Of course I knew the book had been adapted into a play, but never did I imagine it would make its way to Baltimore. To my delight, The Strand’s production of A Year of Magical Thinking, performed by Diane Hood, was one of the best productions in Baltimore over the last few years. In my coursework as a theatre minor, one of the concepts I’ve learned is that in every monologue, the character has to have a really good reason for telling her story.
What makes this one-woman show so compelling is that Didion takes the universal subject of death and, up front, gives the audience a clear reason for why she needs to tell her story. Didion’s husband John and their daughter Quintana died within a year of each other, and the play is about Didion fighting for her sanity in the aftermath.
Everyone dies and everyone loses loved ones at some point in their lives, whether it is a grandparent, parent, husband or wife, child, or family pet. This is an unavoidable fact. So why do we care about Didion’s loss, other than our natural impulse to sympathize with people in times of grief? Didion’s story is not unique, but nevertheless it is compelling precisely because she tells the audience that no matter what, the same thing, the experience of losing a loved one, will happen to you. Hood had my complete attention for the next hour and a half.
Hood is particularly good at showing us the struggle Didion endured to maintain her sanity. She tells the audience, “When they assign you a social worker, you know you’re in trouble.” She is talking about hearing from a young doctor, accompanied by a social worker, that John was dead. The doctor describes Didion as a “cool customer,” but the rest of the play shows us that under her collected demeanor, Didion was far from it.
We’ve all had to navigate the quagmire of the medical system at some point. Because of that common experience, we root for Didion, who attempts to micromanage the doctors treating Quintana. As a writer, Didion takes comfort in gathering the literature and acquiring as much information as possible to ensure that Quintana receives the best treatment possible for sepsis. She goes so far as to purchase scrubs from the medical bookstore. This image of Didion donning scrubs illustrates the measures she is willing to take to save her daughter, even if it means stepping on the toes of medical personnel. The play becomes about the bond between mother and daughter and the helplessness Didion feels when she can no longer protect Quintana from death.
Didion’s relationship with Quintana does not undermine the bond with her late husband. Though friends comment that she and her husband were unusually “interdependent,” Didion poignantly wonders if interdependent is not just another way to say “husband and wife.” By portraying the good and the bad, the business trips to Hawaii and dinners with friends as well as the arguments, Didion avoids idealizing her relationship with John Dunne. This last point is particularly important because Didion’s ability to tell it how it is leaves the audience invested in her story, while Hood’s acting masterfully brings Didion to the stage.
Speaking of Hood, her acting was so convincing that I was sure she was actually Joan Didion. I can’t claim to have ever met Didion before. But talking to Hood was exactly what I imagine talking to Didion would be like. Really I was listening, not talking, but the intimate space gave the impression that we were having a conversation. What’s more, through Hood’s descriptions, I could see John and Quintana, right there, on the stage with her.
Despite the depressing subject matter, this production was everything that I love about theatre. In fact, I might just pick up the little book that’s been sitting on my nightstand and read it a second time.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Directed by Miriam Bazensky – Performed by Dianne Hood
February 4 – 19, 2011