REVIEW: The Year of Magical Thinking (Court Theatre)

Fisher mesmerizes in Didion’s ethereal examination of grief

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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.

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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

 

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Wednesday Wordplay: Pete Seeger tells it like it is

Inspirational Quotes

I don’t like the sound of all those lists he’s making – it’s like taking too many notes at school; you feel you’ve achieved something when you haven’t.
            — Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle, 1948

Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get if you don’t.
            — Pete Seeger

American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers.
            — W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge, 1943

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
            — Margaret Mead

It hurts to find out that what you wanted doesn’t match what you dreamed it would be.
            — Randy K. Milholland, Something Positive Comic, 09-07-04

He that is of the opinion money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.
            — Benjamin Franklin

A man without ambition is dead. A man with ambition but no love is dead. A man with ambition and love for his blessings here on earth is ever so alive. Having been alive, it won’t be so hard in the end to lie down and rest.
            — Pearl Bailey

What you are is a question only you can answer.
            — Lois McMaster Bujold, The Warrior’s Apprentice, 1986

Character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self respect springs.
            — Joan Didion, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem"

Urban Dictionary

 

YouTube Loop 

When you go to watch a quick 30 second video on YouTube and regain consciousness hours later having jumped from interesting video to interesting video.
Similar to a wikipedian loop or ‘WikiComa’

Clarence: "Dude, you totally missed the funeral yesterday!!"
T-dawg: "Yeah I know; somebody emailed me a funny clip and I got stuck in a YouTube loop…"