REVIEW: The Year of Magical Thinking (Court Theatre)

Fisher mesmerizes in Didion’s ethereal examination of grief

 MB Fisher H

Court Theatre presents:

The Year of Magical Thinking

 

by Joan Didion
directed by
Charles Newell
through February 14th (more info)

review by Oliver Sava

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self pity.
       –
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Renowned novelist Joan Didion‘s heartwrenching memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking astonished critics with its unflinching portrayal of the author’s grief following the death her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in the midst of a medical crisis surrounding their daughter, Quintana, garnering Didion a National Book Award and becoming the foundation for the writer’s first stage play. Shortly before the novel’s publication, Didion lost Quintana to pancreatitis, and the stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking expands the scope of the novel by including the playwright’s MB Fisher V IIstruggle to rationalize her daughter’s death while coming to terms with the loss of her husband. Directed by Charles Newell and starring Mary Beth Fisher in a career-defining performance, Court Theatre‘s production maneuvers the intense emotional shifts of Didion’s script with an artistic precision that bristles with elegance, overcoming the insular nature of the script to create a work of art with graceful resonance.

The first thing to greet the viewer’s eye is John Culbert‘s minimal, yet refined, set – an elevated rectangular platform floating in a dark void. A flesh-colored wood floor, desk, and chair are the only set pieces; a teacup, saucer, and flower atop the table the only props. Fisher appears on stage wearing cream slacks and a blue blouse that, aside from the occasional light cue, is the production’s sole use of color. The design elements of the production enhance the script beautifully, the set creating a physical representation of Didion’s isolation surrounded by the blackness of grief, the blue of her costume recalling the ocean and sky imagery of her memories with husband and daughter in Malibu and beyond. Jennifer Tipton‘s lighting design further reinforces the changes in the character’s psyche; inky projections during moments of "magical thinking" show the pervasive effects of grief by dirtying the pristine stage, and lights are turned to full power when she enters the "vortex" of memory that paralyzes her, blinding the audience as much as the character.

_msb5555__large msb_2394_tall__large

Carrying the show on her shoulders, Mary Beth Fisher gives a technically astounding performance. Newell has blocked her in a way that gives her freedom to dramatize events, immensely helpful to a script that is completely centered around the inner workings of one woman’s mind. Fisher is particularly skilled at capturing the obsessively rational side of Didion, a woman that memorizes the names of every drug her daughter is given, who obtains hospital records and doorman’s logs so she can recreate the moments following her husband’s sudden death at the dinner table. As a person that operates from a primarily intellectual position, there are not many instances when Didion lets her heart override her brain. The moments in the "vortex" are fueled by the photographic recall of specific events rather than an emotional response to these memories, making Didion’s mind her greatest enemy. Unable to control the flood of memories attached to certain stimuli, "the question of self-pity" becomes impossible to ignore.

Towards the end of the show, Fisher recalls a vacation in Hawaii with her husband and daughter. Rather than attempting to escape as she has the past recollections, she sits at the downstage edge of the stage and dips her foot into the darkness. The small gesture is a huge step for the character, and by finally venturing into the unknown – the uncontrollable – Didion can finally live outside the shadow of death.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

marybethfisher-yomt

 

 

Photo of Mary Beth Fisher

MARY BETH FISHER (Joan Didion) Chicago credits include The Wild Duck, What the Butler Saw, Arcadia, The Glass Menagerie, Travesties, The Importance of Being Earnest (Court Theatre); Frank’s Home, The Clean House, Dinner With Friends, Heartbreak House, The Rose Tattoo, The Guys, Boy Gets Girl, Spinning Into Butter, Design For Living, Light Up the Sky, The Night of the Iguana, Marvin’s Room (Goodman Theatre); Dead Man’s Cell Phone, The Dresser, The Memory of Water (Steppenwolf Theatre); Little Dog Laughed, Theatre District (About Face); My Own Stranger (Writers’ Theatre). Her NY credits include Frank’s Home (Playwright’s Horizons); Boy Gets Girl (Drama League Honoree, Lucile Lortel and Drama Desk nominations), The Radical Mystique, By The Sea (Manhattan Theatre Club); The Night of the Iguana (Roundabout); Extremities (Westside Arts); Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? (Promenade). She has worked in regional theatres all over the country, most recently in the world premiere of Richard Nelson’s How Shakespeare Won the West (Huntington Theatre, Boston). Her TV/Film credits include: Without a Trace, Numb3rs, Prison Break, NYPD Blue, Profiler, Early Edition, Turks, To Have & To Hold, Formosa Betrayed, Dragonfly, Trauma, and Safe Storage. Ms. Fisher was recently named an inaugural fellow of The Ten Chimneys’ Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Program dedicated to the creation of artist-mentors in the American Theatre.  (this bio courtesy of Court Theatre’s website)

cast-crew

creativeteam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: