NEW YORK — No, that's not Joan Didion onstage recounting the harrowing period in which she suffered the back-to-back losses of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael. That's Vanessa Redgrave, the statuesque English actress who stands almost a foot taller than the iconic California-born author whose brilliantly idiosyncratic writing has provided one of the most reliable barometers of our sociopolitical weather since the late 1960s.
Amid much highbrow chatter, "The Year of Magical Thinking" opened Thursday at the Booth Theatre in a production that was adapted by Didion from her bestselling book and directed by British playwright David Hare. It's hardly your typical Broadway fare, with its static talking-essay form and grim public exposure of a recent private bereavement. On paper it shouldn't work. And for many it won't. There are flaws in the conception and execution of the piece, and Redgrave's otherworldly performance is bound to have an army of detractors.
But this dramatic meditation on what most of us would rather not intimately consider -- mortality as a personal fact -- is remarkable for its ruthless concentration and intelligence. Intermittently frustrating as a theatrical experience, it slowly but inevitably crescendos in moments that are shattering in their naked candor.
When word got around that a Broadway version of Didion's memoir was in the offing, the two main questions were how and who. How do you adapt to the stage an extended autobiographical expose on the time-warping, place-shifting illogic of grief? And who will play one of the most glamorous figures in contemporary American letters, a writer who has fashioned a persona every bit as intriguing as her diamond-sharp prose?
Let's table the discussion of the adaptation for now (noting only that it has been transformed into a one-person show) and move directly to the issue of casting. After reading "Magical Thinking," I conducted my own hypothetical search for the star. Actresses sprang readily to mind only to be dismissed: Lee Grant (too old), Holly Hunter (too young), Linda Hunt (too Linda Huntish). If there was a dead ringer for Didion out there, the name wasn't on any Rolodex of reputable actors I could lay my hands on.
Still, Redgrave seemed an almost defiantly implausible choice. Beyond the physical disparities, the two women come from vastly different milieus (one of left-leaning London drawing rooms, the other of Malibu sunsets and Upper East Side literati). Clearly, the only way to approach this performance is as an act of interpretation rather than impersonation.
This requires a major adjustment as you try to accept an accent that's neither American nor British but some unplaceable amalgamation, a gangly, sturdy physique for a diminutive, frail one and a presence that's more flamboyantly vulnerable than neurotically self-effacing. I resisted mightily at first but eventually made the leap, recognizing that the production wasn't intended to be an illustration of the book. Think of it instead as a parallel offering that, like a lasting work of literary criticism, establishes a life of its own.
Didion, Hare and Redgrave have approached their task with a stark Beckettian determination. Stillness rules a set marked by a solitary wooden deck chair and hanging canvases of abstract patterns in muted colors that change with falling dropcloths. Nothing extraneous is allowed to distract from the ensuing trance-like contemplation.
A vision of white and gray, with her hair pulled back to reveal a pair of blue eyes that stare out with an oceanic intensity, Redgrave resembles a mythological figure who has traveled to a place of total darkness and filed a report for our collective enlightenment.
"This happened on December 30, 2003," she says, naming the date when Didion's husband died of a heart attack while seated in the couple's New York apartment with a second pre-dinner drink. "That may seem a while ago, but it won't when it happens to you. And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That's what I'm here to tell you."
What happened was this: Didion and Dunne had returned home from visiting their daughter, who was lying in a coma in a hospital after a case of flu had developed into pneumonia and then septic shock. They were going through their usual cozy evening ritual when Dunne collapsed. An ambulance was called to no avail. Throughout the year of mourning that followed, Didion was called on to care for her daughter, who suffered a series of medical emergencies that culminated in her death on Aug. 26, 2005, shortly before the memoir was published.