Even sitting on a chair with hands folded, Vanessa Redgrave looks like she’s just come down from Olympus. Silver-haired, wearing an off-white blouse and gray skirt, she seems otherworldly: placid as stone and spectral as a ghost. When she speaks in The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s stage adaptation of her book about her husband’s death and daughter’s illness, she often has a faraway, distracted look: It’s like she’s bringing bad news from Delphi.
Such an oracular tone would fit material like this, you’d think. In December 2003, Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, collapsed at dinner and died of a heart attack. Twenty months later, after a series of hellish medical ordeals, their only daughter, Quintana, died, too. This kind of woe upon woe sounds like it belongs in Greek tragedy, the all-time hall of fame of grief. (“Two deaths, two sorrows, O where shall we weep?” wails the chorus in Sophocles’ Women of Trachis.) But there’s no chorus to amplify the suffering in David Hare’s production, no deus ex machina to wrap up the finale—only an open-ended account of a woman mourning her dead and trying not to go mad wondering if she could have done more to save them. As raw human ordeal, that’s gut-wrenching. As theater, despite moments of potent sadness, it’s unexpectedly mild. It often left me cold.
On the page, her story has an affecting intimacy. We feel, as she describes the nightmare of her losses, that she’s making us privy to a series of whispered asides about what ails her troubled mind. The real reason she insists on an autopsy for Dunne, she writes, is that the procedure might reveal the cause of his death to be so simple that “they might still be able to fix it.” To preserve her faltering mental health—and because it’s just the way she writes—she unfolds the story small step by small step, amassing detail-detail-detail. “I am reading the literature,” explains her onstage self. “I am searching for clues.” By focusing so narrowly on these day-to-day realities, Didion gives Redgrave some chances to bring us up short. “I need to talk to John,” she mentions at one point, gold earrings inappositely swinging. She says this so naturally that it takes a tiny, heartbreaking moment to recall that he’s already gone.
More often, the privacy of Didion’s prose doesn’t scale up to fill the very public stage of the Booth; it’s not easy to be loudly intimate. Because she shies away from the grand gesture, favoring the conversational, Redgrave’s regal posture sometimes works against Didion’s writing. You feel she’s talking to you but not—as is crucial for a play like this one—with you. “Maybe I didn’t mention this before,” she says at one point, interrupting an earlier train of thought. But Redgrave is too composed for this to sound convincing; the break sounds forced.
So, for that matter, does the occasional note of the tough-talking Cassandra that Didion has given her onstage persona. “It will happen to you. That’s what I’m here to tell you,” she says of her suffering. It’s not clear if Didion intended this line to be preemptively consoling or a mere point of information, but it feels tacked on, as if she and Hare were trying extra hard to prove this material belongs onstage, in front of a crowd.
Still, there’s one clear upside to seeing Didion’s story adapted: Onstage, where the writing invites a comparison with all those towering ancient tragedies, it’s easier to spot the curious absences in her account. Didion’s premise throughout her ordeal is that if she can learn enough and be vigilant enough, she will find a way to bring back her husband and save her daughter. Though there are always doctors, friends, and family around the margins, she gives the impression of a woman working alone. There are religious observances and last rites throughout the story, too, but no prayer.
If her play doesn’t have the resonance you’d expect from a story so terribly sad, part of the explanation may lie here. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides derived their power from placing individual grief in a context that was public and divine: They evoked in their plays—and their audiences expected them to evoke—gods, elders, fellow citizens. Didion places the burden for salvation on herself. That might make her story lack something as theater, but it rings true as anthropology: She shows us an up-to-date form of sorrow, where rituals have been eclipsed by private routines.