Beyond grief

The Year of Magical Thinking

There’s no going back, no matter how hard one tries.

There’s no going back, no matter how hard one tries.

Photo By terri brindisi

The Year of Magical Thinking, 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. $15-$25. California Stage in the Wilkerson Theatre, 1723 25th St.; (916) 451-5822; Through November 25.

Wilkerson Theatre (formerly The California Stage)

1723 25th St.
Sacramento, CA 95816

(916) 451-5822

Rated 5.0

It will happen to you.

That’s the message—and it’s an uncomfortable one—to be found in the stark, emotionally intense and surprisingly funny West Coast premiere of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking at California Stage. As the author, Janis Stevens exudes the physical lightness—almost a birdlike quality—we have come to associate with Didion, while constantly surprising us with reminders of how sharp the wit, how fluid the language and how incisive the thinking are within that small woman.

The play, written by Didion from her Pulitzer Prize-winning book for the New York stage production that starred Vanessa Redgrave, does not go easily or gently into the murky terrain that is a deep, pervasive grief. It opens with the warning—“It will happen to you”—and the suggestion that this is precisely why no one wants to think about the death of a loved one.

If you love, you will also lose. Everyone we love will leave us, because death—never truly expected, never really prepared for—is inevitable. And, once that’s out of the way, Stevens’ Didion takes us through the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, as the couple were sitting down to dinner. But that’s not all. At the same time, the couple’s only daughter, Quintana, was near death, suffering from toxic shock in an intensive care unit at a New York hospital across town from the one in which her father was pronounced dead.

Stevens gives yet another outstanding performance in a one-woman show, striking just the right notes of vulnerability and control-freak mania to make us understand the hospital social worker’s assessment of Didion as “a cool customer.”

The Year of Magical Thinking takes its title from Didion’s “magical” thought after Dunne’s death: If she plays along, does the right things, Dunne will return. It might be “nuts,” as she so frankly states, but as played by Stevens, we appreciate the sly understanding that reality can coexist with the hope against reason that this magical thinking will be true.

It never is. And it will happen to you.