Kathleen Turner in The Year of Magical Thinking

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.” Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Let’s face it. No one wants to think about death, about our own or those close to us. So deciding to spend an evening in the theater listening to a play that focuses on death may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, by the end of The Year of Magical Thinking, we come away, not exactly elated, but not exactly depressed. Partly that’s due to the eloquent words of Joan Didion on whose memoir the play is based. Mostly, though, it’s because of a heartfelt, deeply affecting performance by one of the greatest actors of her generation, Kathleen Turner.

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Turner, whose credits include many stage and screen performances, is not a stranger to Arena Stage, where The Year of Magical Thinking is now playing. She previously appeared in Mother Courage and Her Children and Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. Each time she appears at Arena Stage, it’s an event. This time is no exception. With expert direction from Gaye Taylor Upchurch and staging in the intimate Kogood Cradle, Turner seems less to be acting than carrying on a conversation with a group of close friends. She makes frequent eye contact with the audience, establishing an emotional connection that draws you into the performance.

When Arena’s Artistic Director, Molly Smith, asked Turner which project she wanted to tackle next, she immediately mentioned The Year of Magical Thinking, saying the play “is about grace, and I want to bring that to the audience.” She certainly manages that, taking us through two horrific years in Didion’s life when she lost her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter, Quintana. Didion and Dunne not only were married for nearly 40 years, but had a professional relationship, writing screenplays for Panic in Needle Park, which starred a young Al Pacino, and Play It As It Lays, based on her novel, which starred Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld. They moved from New York to California after their marriage, in 1964, and in 1966 adopted a daughter, Quintana Roo.

Didion’s roller-coaster ride begins on December 30, 2003. Now living in New York, the couple had just been to visit Quintana who is in a coma at Beth Israel North (formerly Doctor’s Hospital), on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. They return to their apartment where Didion prepares dinner and builds a fire. “A fire meant you were home, safe for the night,” Turner says. At one point, Dunne stops talking and slumps over in his chair. At first, she thinks he is joking, but soon realizes he has passed out. An ambulance arrives quickly; she notes the exact times that each event occurred. At the hospital, she’s taken aside. “If they give you a social worker, you’re in trouble,” she says. She returns home with John’s wallet, cellphone, and clothes. “Grief has its place, but also it’s limits,” Turner says, explaining the aftermath, coping with John’s death and continuing to watch over their daughter.

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When Quintana emerges from her coma, she’s told about the death of her father and is able to attend and speak at his funeral held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where she had been married just a short time before. Quintana and her husband decide to take a trip to California, something her mother encourages. While there she suffers a massive hematoma, requiring hours of surgery at UCLA Medical Center. Although she recovers, she dies of acute pancreatitis the following year. Two blows in two years. The original memoir only dealt with John’s death. Didion later wrote Blue Nights about Quintana’s death. The play was expanded to include Joan’s coping with both deaths.

How does one cope? By magical thinking, which Didion describes as an anthropologist would. If a person thinks long and hard enough that an event can be prevented, perhaps it would be. In the play, Turner talks about the inability to give away John’s shoes, with the hope that if she holds onto them, he will return.

The Year of Magical Thinking runs an hour and 50 minutes with no intermission. There’s no down time for Turner or for the audience, either. We sign on for this ride and in less time than we imagine, it’s over. What we have experienced, however, will stay with us for a long, long time.

Photos by C. Stanley Photography

Kathleen Turner in
The Year of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion based on her memoir
Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth Street SW

About Charlene Giannetti (575 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. The film is now available to view on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other services. Charlene and her husband live in Manhattan.