Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
“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.
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.
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
With Oliver Stone’s Snowden in theaters (read our review), now seems like a good time to remember some other cinematic entries about other people who chose to blow the whistle on their employers-no matter the cost.
Serpico (1973) Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Network) and starring Al Pacino in the title role, it tells the true story of how NYPD officer Frank Serpico went undercover to expose corruption in the police force. It covers twelve years; 1960-1972. It was successful commercially and artistically receiving Academy Awards for Best Actor for Pacino and Best Adapted Screenplay. It also routinely comes up on lists of the best crime movies AND best movies of the 20th century period, as well as being considered a high mark to Lumet and Pacino’s careers.
The Insider (1999) Directed by Michael Mann (The Last of the Mohicans, Collateral) and based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article, “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” 60 Minutes did a segment on Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe in one of his best performances) a whistleblower in the tobacco industry. His efforts to come forward were championed by CBS producer Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino) despite efforts by the Brown & Williamson tobacco company to silence and discredit Wigand. It wasn’t a big hit commercially but highly lauded by critics and was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith directed this documentary following Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, which detailed the military’s secret history in Vietnam. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. It won prizes at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Boulder International Film Festival, the Sidney Film Festival, as well as snagging a Peabody Award.
The Whistleblower (2010) Directed by Larysa Kondracki (The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul) and starring Rachel Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovac an American police officer recruited by the United Nations to be a peacekeeper for DynCorp International in post-war Bosnia in 1999. Bolkovac discovered a sex trafficking ring that catered to and was facilitated by DynCorp employees while UN peacekeeping forces looked the other way. Bolkovac went public. It was nominated for three Genie Awards and won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at both the Whistler Film Festival and Palm Springs International Film Festival. Warning – because of the subject matter, this one is extremely violent, graphic, and incredibly dark.
War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State (2013) Directed by Robert Greenwald and Brave New Foundation it clocks it at just 66 minutes. War on Whistleblowers highlights several cases where government employees and contractors took cases of fraud and abuse to the media. All of them were penalized for it professionally and personally. It has a fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes with Variety magazine calling it “a sobering picture of a national security state.”
Author Michael Schulman, a contributor and arts editor for The New Yorker, became particularly intrigued with Meryl Streep because of her self-effacing acceptance speeches. How, he thought, can the foremost actor of our generation (not, his, he’s younger), be surprised at and humble about her success? “To be called the greatest living actor, something even my own mother wouldn’t sanction is a curse…” the actor has said. “When I heard my name, I could hear half of America saying her again?!” (her Oscar acceptance speech for The Iron Lady)
Was she ever just a struggling, 20-something performer, Schulman asked himself? Did she arrive from Yale in full bloom, preternatural talent ripe? “When most actresses have reached their sell-by date, she continues to carry movies…so little is known about the early days…The book is not a soup to nuts biography, it’s about her origins.” The author met the very private Streep only once, for a Talk of the Town piece, not this later volume. He interviewed 80 of the artist’s friends and associates, dug through archival material and viewed performance on film and video.
This thoroughly entertaining glimpse at Schulman’s book begins with Mary Louise Streep of Bernardsville, New Jersey, “a brassy bully who didn’t care how she looked.” In fact, the preteen photo resembles a librarian. She studied singing with an opera coach (I hear a few ah has out there), but changed priorities upon discovering boys.
“Essentially, she decided to be another person.” Streep studied the girls in Seventeen and Mademoiselle Magazines. She actually said/wrote that she practiced giggling and became purposefully deferential so boys would appreciate her. She went blonde. The next photo we see projected is the fair haired young woman as a cheerleader. She was Homecoming Queen. “They liked me better and I liked that, but this was real acting.”
“Super Hero origins are all about their learning to apply their powers.” This heroine’s journey began at Vassar when it was an all girls school. She stopped “faking her way” and found herself making lifelong friends. “My brain woke up” (Streep) Schulman reads excerpts from letters she wrote to an earlier high school boyfriend then stationed in Vietnam. Streep was searching for something that took her out of herself. Even after her first appearance starring in Strindberg’s Miss Julie, she was ambivalent. Still, she applied to Yale- because the admission fee was $25 less than Julliard.
Schulman tells us about early New York roles featuring humor and character, not as an ingénue, calling out the artist’s lack of vanity and fear as well as obvious empathy. He shows us photographs from Arthur Wing Pinero’s Trelawney of the Wells (at Lincoln Center), and Happy End (Weill/Brecht/Lane.)
Streep’s breakout appearance, he suggests, was in the tandem Twenty Seven Wagons Full of Cotton (Tennessee Williams) and A Memory of Two Mondays (Arthur Miller.) In one of several wonderful descriptions of auditions shared by fellow thespians, John Lithgow describes her chatting amiably with director Arvin Brown as she took down her hair, changed her shoes, and stuffed her brassiere with tissues.
In the first play, Streep played a languid, brassy, southern sexpot; in the second, a steely, urban secretary that was so different, people didn’t recognize her. I can testify to that. I was there with my mother who double checked her program. We both felt in the presence of astonishing talent.
Joe Papp’s production Measure for Measure in Central Park introduced Streep to John Cazale who was older, an established film actor, and by all reports, extremely eccentric. (Cazale played Fredo in The Godfather.) The two fell madly in love and moved in together. Tragically, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. At 28, Streep dropped everything to join the cast of TheDeer Hunter in order to be with Cazale during his last film. “They needed a girl between two guys and I was it.” Al Pacino was floored by her devotion which is, he says, the first thing he thinks of upon seeing Streep. Cazale died shortly after. He never saw the film.
“She got into movies despite herself,” Schulman tells us. “This was the first of 19 Academy Award nominations. Six months later, Streep married sculptor Don Gummer, the second great love of her life. They have three daughters.” Then came The Taming of The Shrew in Central Park, Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Kramer vs. Kramer the film that arguably made her a star (and garnered her first Academy Award.) Schulman says he writes quite a bit about the pivotal juncture, ending with it.
Apparently Streep’s recollection of that audition was diametrically opposed to those others present. She recalls telling the men that as written Joanna was “an ogre, a princess, an ass,” further informing those who might hire her that the character was a reflection of the struggle women go through all across the country; that she had a reason for leaving and a reason for coming back. If she was to be hired, rewriting must take place. (Streep actually ended up rewriting parts of the role, including courtroom testimony. “Once she applies her sense of empathy,” Schulman comments, “characters that were villains become heroes…think of The Devil Wears Prada.”)
Director Robert Benton and Dustin Hoffman remember the audition being a disaster, Streep’s hardly saying anything. Hoffman wanted to hire her because of Cazale, because he felt she could draw upon fresh pain. During the shoot, he taunted and even once slapped her to evoke what he felt necessary in the only method acting way he knew how. “He’s bragged about this since….” The floor opened to questions after Schulman’s talk.
Michael Schulman speaks to Streep’s feelings about service, sacrifice, femininity, feminism, and empathy with some insight. By focusing on a particular, lesser known period, he illuminates and entertains. All the chapter heads call out a major role except one entitled Fredo. This is likely a very good book.