Saturday, June 29, 2019

Didion's journey of grief portrayed in 'The Year of Magical Thinking'

Stacy Ross portrays Joan Didion. (Photo by David Allen)

Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” presented by Aurora Theatre Company, deals with the writer’s profound grief after the deaths of her husband and their daughter within less than two years of each other.

Sensitively directed by Nancy Carlin, this one-woman play features Stacy Ross as Didion, who speaks in the first person.

Didion describes the day in late December 2003 when her husband and frequent collaborator, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a fatal heart attack while she was preparing dinner in their New York City home.

At the same time, their recently married adopted daughter, Quintana, was in a coma in a nearby hospital after suffering pneumonia that developed into septic shock.

She recovered enough to leave the hospital and speak at her father’s delayed funeral, but she suffered a brain injury in 2004 and died in 2005 of acute pancreatitis.

“Magical thinking,” as Didion interpreted it, meant that if she could maintain control and do things the right way, such as avoiding streets that she and John had driven, his death might be averted and he would return.

She gave away most of his clothes but kept his shoes, thinking he would need them when he came back.

She felt this self-delusional thinking would keep her from falling into the vortex of reality and perhaps going insane.

Over time, however, she began to come to grips with her grief and prepared to confront reality.

It’s a brilliant performance by Ross, who takes the audience through Didion’s difficult emotional journey.

To keep it from becoming merely a monologue, Carlin has Ross moving along the several playing levels on Kent Dorsey’s monochromatic set. Occasionally she goes upstage to sit and read something.

Kurt Landisman’s lighting is generally effective, but sometimes has Ross moving through a shadow on one side. The atmospheric sound by Cliff Caruthers is mostly unobtrusive. Ross’s simple costume is by Valera Coble.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, “The Year of Magical Thinking” is entirely absorbing and fascinating.

It will continue through July 21 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. 

For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit