“As a writer … I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish,” Joan Didion writes in her 2005 memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” “This is a case in which I need whatever I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.”
The struggle between distancing and proximity — between making oneself “penetrable” and inaccessible — arcs over the memoir’s reminiscences. It parallels the trajectory of Didion’s grief, which she alternately confronts and attempts to escape.
Berkeley is now seeing its own rendition of that story, in all its contradictions, as the Aurora Theatre Company unveiled its play “The Year of Magical Thinking” in June. Starring veteran theater actress Stacy Ross and featuring a script written by Didion herself, the interpretation solidly personifies Didion’s prose. By way of its apt casting and ingenious use of its tiny 150-seat theater, it is a proper tribute to the once Berkeley-based author.
Embodying a popular literary figure onstage is difficult even when the play in question is not said figure’s deeply personal autobiography. The story, recounting a year in Didion’s life after the death of her husband, tracks the author’s grief as she copes with bereavement and her daughter’s ongoing illness. Yet Ross meets the challenge with aplomb and a wryness that implies deep familiarity with the author-character.
Ross’ performance highlights the adaptation’s awareness of its audience’s tangible presence. Where the novel refrains from second-person addresses and reads as a stream-of-consciousness whirl of dizzying recollection, the script launches with a series of powerful uses of “you” — “it won’t when it happens to you,” “it will happen to you,” “that’s what I’m here to tell you.” Ross delivers these lines with a shocking directness, making use of Aurora’s intimate space to meet audience members’ eyes with each line.
Throughout the play, Ross’ tone varies between conversational and lecturing. She holds each member of the audience accountable for their attention. Didion does just this in her memoir, manipulating her “year of magical thinking” as its own temporal place into which she can retreat from a painful reality — even while putting on a public front of calm acceptance.
In the play, Ross as Didion distances herself from grief by becoming closer to the audience. She strolls, marches and spins around the stage scarcely a foot away from the front row with purpose and restraint. The stage lights that follow her as she rises and falls with the stairlike slab platforms only relent when she is on the verge of tears — “For once in your life, just let it go!” — and turns away to wipe at her eyes before resuming.
Even displaying its subject matter onstage, the play manages to maintain the sense that grief, even while performed in theater, is a private venture. The processing of tragedy, it implies, does not bear sharing as much as fast-paced accounts of several types of blood thinners and the distance between various hospitals in New York City.
Ross’ continuous monologue opens and closes on a set of fractured gray slabs reminiscent of a cracked stream bed. The simplistic yet brutal set brings some of the more intangible elements of Didion’s memoir into view. Reading either the script or the novel, one gets the sense that there are many versions of Didion speaking. Each of these falls into a topical tangent of her own, and they interrupt one another to vacillate between stories about Didion’s husband at the hospital and her daughter’s past birthday celebrations.
This particular staging sees Ross physically move with each tangent in speech. Appearing as a solid and solitary figure clad in turquoise green, she steps between a series of slate-gray slabs onstage in a remarkable visualization of moving so as to move on. The music that accompanies some of these transitions, vague and watery as though played through a muffled phonograph, establishes the dreamlike tone of verbalized recollections.
Just as these transitions allow Didion to continue forward, they also help viewers forget the interludes that came before. There is rarely silence in the play. The audience is not given the space to dwell on Didion’s asides and assertions except at the very end, and perhaps that was the point.
‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ will be running at Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley through July 21.