Judy Jean Berns in "The Year of Magical Thinking" at Elephant… (Garrison Burrell )
Joan Didion’s stage adaptation of her 2005 memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," is a wrenchingly meditative one-hander that delves into the mechanics of loss – namely, the sudden death of Didion’s longtime husband and writing partner, John Gregory Dunne, and the agonizingly prolonged decline of her beloved daughter, Quintana.
Dunne’s death was nearly instantaneous. Quintana, on the other hand, succumbed only after the course of many months and several mysterious maladies.
Quintana died after Didion’s book had already gone to press, and Didion’s controversial refusal to delay publication and update her work is addressed in her play – sometimes to a fault. Strikingly, the death of Dunne gets somewhat short shrift while Quintana’s more gradual attenuation is more exhaustively described.
Vanessa Redgrave starred in the London and New York productions. The current Los Angeles premiere at the Elephant Stages features Judy Jean Berns, a slender and attractive older woman who, under the direction of David Robinson, imbues her performance with considerable skill and sincerity.
Didion is a masterly stylist who recounts her double bereavement with Proustian specificity. The result is thoughtful, elegant – and just a tad laborious. Didion’s blow-by-blow etiology, her lavish introspection, may have popped off the printed page but seems unnecessarily reiterative in theatrical format. And the fact that Berns uses index cards to navigate her way between scenes proves a further distraction.
Still, the play succeeds as memento mori. With unparalleled exactitude of observation, Didion delivers an unflinching theatrical post-mortem, exposing the layers of her loss with surgical skill.
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“The Year of Magical Thinking,” Elephant Stages, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 14. $25. (323) 960-7774. www.plays411.com/magicalthinking. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.