- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

You’ve probably had one of those years when one bad thing after another happens and your days are swallowed up by hospital visits and trips to funeral homes, and the only thing you can do to keep going is to keep going — put one foot in front of the other, take comfort in the rhythm of routine and trust that at some point, this dark spell of grief will be broken and you will return to the land of the living.

Writer Joan Didion had a year like that, losing her husband, John Gregory Dunne, to a heart attack while her daughter, Quintana, was seriously ill and in a coma. The shock of the first loss barely sinks in as Miss Didion sees her daughter through a series of medical calamities that lead to the young woman’s death months later.

Miss Didion, celebrated for her cool intellect and scalpel-sharp observations, found herself abandoning reason for what she called “magical thinking” — believing in rituals and superstition, searching her memory for omens that should have warned her or prepared her for the hardships that followed.

Her award-winning memoir of this time, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” has been adapted as a stage play that starred Vanessa Redgrave on Broadway. At Studio Theatre, Helen Hedman takes on the role of the author in an accomplished performance that offers hints of warmth and compassion beneath the steely, analytical exterior.

Miss Hedman’s Didion approaches her story with immaculate precision, examining the events and her reactions as if dissecting tissue or parsing a sentence. This detachment not only allows Didion — and the audience — some much-needed distance from reliving what is essentially unthinkable tragedy, but also allows for moments of droll humor. Miss Hedman draws out these moments to give us a glimpse of the human side of this outwardly remote intellectual.

However, Miss Hedman’s Didion is searingly affecting when she chastises herself for sinking into what she considers the most odious of emotions, self-pity, and for — as she has convinced herself — letting her husband and daughter down by not keeping them safe. She’s a self-described “cool customer,” but when she crisply speaks of not being able to throw out her husband’s shoes because “he’ll need them when he returns,” your heart just breaks.

There was a running joke in Miss Didion’s long-standing marriage that she always needed to be right and to have the last word. In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” she does have the final say, and it is impeccably right.

★★★

WHAT: “The Year of Magical Thinking,” by Joan Didion

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through July 5

TICKETS: $41 to $61

PHONE: 202/332-3300

WEB SITE: www.studiotheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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