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`You start from a different place'

Don't expect Joan Didion's play, `The Year of Magical Thinking,' to be just like her book.

March 28, 2007|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Joan Didion and Vanessa Redgrave could hardly be more different.

Didion's a distinctly American writer, as soft-spoken as she is small. "Let's face it," she says, "everybody's taller than I am." Redgrave is a nearly 6-foot-tall British actress, as expressively forceful as she is physically imposing.

And yet when Didion's memoir "The Year of Magical Thinking" is turned into a one-woman Broadway play, Redgrave will depict Didion on stage. Or is Redgrave actually playing someone else?

Even though Didion's journal of grief and the new play share the same title, the two works are, in some ways, as different as Didion and Redgrave. Didion's book, written after the 2003 heart attack death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, is ultimately a chronicle of the slow healing of a deep psychic wound.

The play, conversely, isn't dispassionately focused on finding answers in sorrow; it's about the emotional implosion of a universe. After the book was published, Didion also lost her 39-year-old daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, who died in August 2005 after a series of hospitalizations.

Writing "The Year of Magical Thinking" as a book was a way of processing John's death. Writing "The Year of Magical Thinking" as a play was a way of processing Quintana's death. And the act of doing both gave Didion a focus to her days, a way not to fall apart.

"I was still dealing with Quintana's death," Didion says. "And I wasn't dealing with it."

That struggle ultimately would unfold in the new material she brought to the play. "I don't even think of it as an adaptation," the 72-year-old Didion says inside the Booth Theatre, the relatively intimate space where the 90-minute monologue opens on Thursday. "I think of it as something I sat down and wrote -- the same way I sat down and wrote the book. You just start from a different place."

That different place, as producer Scott Rudin sees it, is the frontlines of heartache. Rudin likens the play to "Dispatches," reporter Michael Herr's graphic report from the Vietnam War battlefields. Didion, Rudin says, "is the first journalist to get out of the hot zone."

From their very first lines, the two works diverge.

"Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant," Didion's bestselling book begins, and the author of "The White Album," "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and "Play It As It Lays" then describes her struggle to comprehend the death of her husband of nearly 40 years and screenwriting partner.

That's not all she faces: While Didion tries to reassemble her life, she also must wrestle with the failing health of her only daughter. When the book concludes, though, Quintana Roo is still alive.

When the play concludes, though, she, too, has died.

"This happened on Dec. 30, 2003," Redgrave begins from the nearly bare stage, whose only piece of furniture is a single wood chair and whose only scenery are some massive painted backdrops designed by Bob Crowley. "That may seem a while ago, but it won't when it happens to you. And it will happen to you," the actress says, gesturing to audience members. "The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That's what I'm here to tell you."

Didion's book is exacting, at times even detached. It's more scientific than spiritual journey. Its author is the ultimately reliable storyteller, revisiting personal experience and sifting through medical, psychological and even etiquette literature to arrive at a new understanding of life without a loved one.

The person on stage, on the other hand, isn't always as together. "You've got a narrator who is telling you something that sometimes you believe, and sometimes you don't," Didion says. "She's not a good reporter on herself."

She struggles, too, to keep focused. One idea sparks another random idea; the lines connecting her thinking are occasionally difficult to trace. A small incident in the book -- Didion's avoiding certain Los Angeles streets because of the memories they trigger -- becomes, in the play, a physical and psychological vortex.

"In the book, I'm trying to tell you that I'm trying to figure it out. I'm not evading the subject," Didion says. "The character on stage -- quite a lot of the time -- is trying to avoid telling you what she's there to tell you."

But what is it, exactly, that she's there to tell you? That was what Didion, Rudin, Redgrave and director David Hare had to figure out.

Rudin says he was only on the book's second page when he decided it could be adapted into a play. The producer approached Didion, but the author wasn't interested in the project.

Rudin, who also produced the Tony-winning plays "Doubt," "Copenhagen" and "The History Boys," had reason to expect a rejection. "She was kind of this marked figure in the city," he says. With so much loss in her recent past, "she was radioactive -- people were afraid of her. You couldn't discuss [the deaths]. And you couldn't not discuss them."

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