Theater at Monmouth: “The Year of Magical Thinking” (REVIEW)
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you knows it ends.”
― Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
“The Year of Magical Thinking” under the direction of TAM’s producing artistic director Dawn McAndrews, has been one of the most extraordinary performances I have yet to witness (others would agree), as Janis Stevens performed this critically acclaimed one woman play. Days later, I am still struck by the deeply personal and tumultuous nature of the play itself, Janis’ extraordinary ability to convey the words of Ms Didion into a place beyond her solitary journey and personal connections and to an overarching reach for all, as death is a part of life and how we grieve, how we mourn the loss of those to whom we are closest, is a deep thing within us all, quite often something hard or nigh impossible to adequately describe in mere words.
The Theater at Monmouth is now Ms. Stevens’ third venue for performing “Magical Thinking”, written and set in 2003-4, and it was striking how well a single actor was able to tap into the depths of her considerable talents to tell such an emotionally-driven and personal tale, as Joan went from a confident world renowned writer to worried mother and grieving widow with the sudden loss of husband John Gregory Dunne, questioning herself and the life they shared (“Why do you always have to be right. Why do you always have to have the last word. For once in your life just let it go.” ), a woman who had great grasp of words and ability for gathering facts (“Information is control.”)- yet unable to process fully the events that were rapidly spirally beyond her control.
Janis makes one believe it was HER story being told, with masterful utilization of her body and voice through the varied moments of the one act play, be it in Joan’s frenzied focus on minute details and daily schedules, her practiced rituals to stave off “the vortex” of doubts and fears that threaten to consume her if she allows or breaks from her stringent daily course forward, her physical and mental exhaustion, the internal battles for control of Joan’s thoughts and emotions, of joyous memories of the past, and her outwardly projected confidence as she urged and willed daughter Quintana to live. Of paralyzing fear, not knowing what was the “right step” forward- and of finally starting to come to accept (“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.” ) her losses.
Equally dramatic and compelling to the play was how the deliberate choices of a simple seaside dock as the stage, dark background lighting as to emphasize Joan’s solitude and usage of sound effects throughout the 90 minute performance were effectively utilized, as the story being told switched from an apartment in Manhattan, to the coasts of Malibu and Hawaii or a Parisian sidewalk, inside hospital ICUs and ERs on both coasts and even a Kansan cornfield, as Joan’s year went from the rapidly changing demands of the current situations to scarcely allowed moments of past reflections. This vortex of overflowing emotions and memories was one she tried desperately to avoid, as not to deflect her from her desire to “fix” what had “gone wrong”, to be able to cling to a belief that she could change the outcome of what had already transpired.
When asked the difference between her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking and the play, Joan Didion answered: “When I was writing the book, I did not know whether or not I would survive. When I was writing the play, I knew that I had survived.”
CAST: Janis Stevens
Set Designer: Jim Alexander
Lighting Director: Lynne Chasse
Sound Designer: Rew Tippen
Stage Manager: Melissa A. Nathan