by Margaret Croyden

"The Year of Magical Thinking"


Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

The Year of Magical Thinking
Starring Vanessa Redgrave
By Joan Didion
Directed by David Hare
Booth Theater
222 West 45th Street

Reviewed by Margaret Croyden April 15, 2007.

Vanessa Redgrave has a hard job playing Joan Didion in "The Year of Magical Thinking." She must sit on the stage in a straight, plain chair for one hour 30 minutes and recount the incidents from Joan Didion's memoir on the death of her husband and daughter. She must stare out into the audience and capture their attention and dramatize the details of the book. Ms. Redgrave is a fine, accomplished actress and she does her best with this no action recitation, but she is the victim of a thankless script, (also written by Joan Didion), which may have been alright for a book, but is a failure for the stage. In fact it is not play at all.

Although the piece describes in detail the tragic death of Didion's husband and daughter, the material barely comes alive, despite Redgave's efforts. Redgrave tries for simplicity; she seems fearful of appearing and sounding too sentimental and self pitying. So she rushes through the script in a hurry which is all to the good (otherwise the night would be completely boring, although it almost is) and one thanks her and the director David Hare for the sweeping delivery. But there is a hitch: the performance has little warmth and little resonance. One expected some expression of deep feeling, some moment of pain, some emotional underpinnings, some sense of the tragic. But the work is cold and colorless and Redgrave comes across as remote and detached.

Vanessa Redgrave. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

I doubt this is Redgrave's fault; it is in the writing. Joan Didion writes staccato declarative sentences, with no flourish, no adjectives, and no emotional sweep. She writes as if she is discussing a laundry list and giving herself credit for remembering all the details. She knows the medications her daughter received; she knows them by name and can rattle them off. She knows the procedures in the hospitals and takes time to tell us about that. She knows the difference between hospitals and seems to enjoy showing us how much knowledge she has. In fact she comes across as a superior know-it-all --not a flattering picture of Ms. Didion. Unintentionally (perhaps) she displayed an enormous ego in the middle of the tragedy.

However, Vanessa Redgrave manages to hold the audience's attention. She is a striking figure: her white hair brushed back, grey skirt, bland top, a little necklace--she is quite beautiful, especially her eyes. But it does get tiresome to watch her sit there all night quoting from the book.

Moreover, there is something unseemly and narcissistic about the production. Didion wrote the book, it got marvelous reviews; she made numerous appearances on television, she received plenty of press. The book became a best seller, so why put the story on stage in a drab setting, when it is all exxposition and Didion is not experienced or talented enough to create a play? A book is one thing and a theater piece is another; the forms are quite different. Words always matter, of course, but in theater, we need to see the images, we need to see live action, events happen in front of us, relying just on exposition will not do. Telling and not showing is considered a cardinal sin in writing. And good writers show not tell. I'm sure Ms. Didion knows that. But her personal tragedy took over and unfortunately the rules of the game were forgotten.

Margaret CROYDEN is the author of "Conversations with Peter Brook 1970-2000" (Farrar,Straus, & Giroux)

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