The Year of Magical Thinking

The death of a loved one is one of life's greatest challenges, as we literally lose part of ourselves. When this happens to artists, the resulting grieving process often results in some of the most sublime works of art.

Such is the case with Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, which she wrote in the year following the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, in 2003, and the hospitalization of her daughter, Quintana. The book won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction. The play expands upon the book and includes the death of Quintana.

Wendy Ishii as Joan Didion
Wendy Ishii as Joan Didion
Photo: William A. Cotton
Didion also wrote the stage play, which just finished a reprise, at the Dairy Center for the Arts in Boulder, of Bas Bleu Theatre Company's award-winning one-woman production featuring Wendy Ishii, directed by Oz Scott.

While this is obviously a very personal take on the grieving process, as Didion notes in the first scene—"You don't want to think it will happen to you. That's why I'm here."—it is more than that, as Ishii so eloquently shows us in her everywoman portrayal. Despite Didion's telltale, hard-hitting journalistic approach to her husband's, and later her daughter's, death, Ishii shows us the emotional tension building beneath Didion's seemingly placid rational surface.

Didion identifies her sublimation of events as "magical thinking," which she uses in the anthropological sense, to describe behaviors based in the belief that if certain states of mind are maintained, events that seem inevitable may be avoided. For example, Didion is unable to give away her husband's suits and shoes, because "he will need them when he returns."

In the generally accepted model developed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross—the five stages of grief being denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—Didion's magical thinking appears to be a combination of the first three phases; but it is more than that, since it engenders her art, for which we are the beneficiaries. In the process of translating and committing her feelings to the printed page, Didion subconsciously prepares herself to let go of her loved ones.

Eventually, there comes a moment when Didion's conscious mind is no longer able to put off the subconscious and avoid the truth; then, she lets "the vortex" overcome her and she is flooded with emotion. Here, Ishii releases the tension—that she had been building—into grief, delivering the catharsis.

While the play began its life as Didion's personal voice—that is, as a book—in Ishii's performance it transcends the personal, showing itself to be universal in its accomodation of different voices.

The Dairy Center for the Arts presentation of Bas Bleau Theatre Company's The Year of Magical Thinking closed on April 20th. It reopened at Bas Bleu Theatre in Fort Collins on September 18th and runs through October 5th.

Bob Bows


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