Always a steadfast source of tasteful, well executed plays, Court Theatre delivers another excellent show with Joan Didion's potent "The Year of Magical Thinking."
Although Didion was a successful screenwriter, essayist and novelist, this adaptation represents her first foray into theater. Based on a memoir written just after the tragic deaths of both her husband and daughter, the play, as tough and eloquent as its author, improves upon Didion's original book. Where her memoir was scattered and (albeit intentionally) meandering, the play, mirroring the delusional thoughts common in one coping with loss, cycles through various tangents, yet gains momentum. Many of the book's motifs remain: the evolving concept of self-pity, Didion's need for control, and, of course, the misguided belief that one's will plays a role in mortality. However, astute, character-conscious augmentations have been made. As opposed to the book's focus on Didion's journey through grief, the play evokes a much stronger sense of Didion's identity as a writer accustomed to controlling a story's path and outcome. As a result, and perhaps also by virtue of the art form, the audience is less Didion herself, more her inexperienced co-conspirator, learning to navigate the inevitable griefscape, part and parcel of human existence.
Both director Charles Newell and Chicago actor Mary Beth Fisher are up to the myriad challenges presented by this deceptively simple show. Newell beautifully employs costume, set and music, none of which detract from the script's spare elegance. Rather, like salt, each theatrical element helps to tease out the full flavor of Didion's evocative words. Fisher embodies the Didion character with sympathetic candor. Never repetitive, she imbues the spiraling script with freshness; identical lines take on layers of meaning with each reiteration. When Fisher falls suddenly silent, an astute audience member might cast backward, belatedly registering the preceding clues. The show's abrupt finish feels appropriate, perhaps a structural reference to life's uncertainty, our futile quest for meaning where really there is none.