What happened in 2003 is well-known: Didion, a famous and respected writer of novels, essays and screenplays and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, another renowned writer, brother of Domick, frequent collaborator with Joan, came home from visiting their daughter in a New York Hospital. Quintana Dunne Michael had been married only five months when she went to the emergency room with a high fever, was diagnosed with the flu which became pneumonia, then septic shock. She was being kept in an induced coma while receiving a barrage of antibiotics to try to clear the infection. Every evening before the couple left her room, her father leaned over to tell her, “I love you more than one more day,” a sentiment Quintana would convey at his memorial service held weeks later after she was released, presumably well.
On this night, Didion made a fire, poured John a Scotch, then another, and he was talking. He stopped, and she turned back from tossing a salad to see him slumped over. She thought he was joking, or perhaps choking. Quickly it became clear that he was not. After years of treatment for heart problems, he died—probably instantly—despite paramedics’ frantic efforts. As Didion goes on to relate what happened during the rest of the evening after that unthinkable event, her “year of magical thinking” begins. She behaves well at the hospital, prompting the social worker to call her a “cool customer,” but she is not. She is not even close to “cool”; rather, she is insane, or so she tells us. The social worker hands her into a taxi and asks if she has the “fare,” an odd word choice, she thinks at the time, impersonal, but later connects his question to Charon collecting the fare to take the dead across the River Styx to Hades.
Didion kept meticulous records which she recites on both John’s and Quintana’s illnesses and hospitalizations. She may have been able to hide behind facts and figures. She wants John to have an autopsy and she plans a cremation, but she doesn’t believe he’s dead. Not really. There are so many decisions to make. “I need to talk this over with John,” she says. “I always talk everything over with John,” though she’s honest about their marriage. It was never perfect. They fought a great deal, and he accused her of always having to be “right,” to “have the last word.” At one point in the show she rails against the Fates that took him away and has now made it impossible for her to get that word.
Time passes and she continues to tend to her daughter, but she is moving mechanically and thinking odd thoughts. She cleans out her husband’s clothing, but doesn’t get rid of his shoes because he’ll need them “when he comes back.” She even believes the autopsy should be done so the cause of death could be found and mended, as happened in 1987 when Dunne had heart surgery to repair a threatening condition.
In some ways, Didion has used “magical thinking” all her life, and so do we. If we perform certain rituals we believe we’re protecting ourselves and those we love. For many, the totem is prayer but Didion is not a believer, so her actions are more arcane. Most prominently, she believes that a fire means everyone is home and “safe” in the circle. She made fires on warm nights when they were living in Malibu; she built one right before her husband died. She always told her daughter, “I’m here and you’re safe” whenever she came home to her or tucked her in. She continued this mantra as Quintana went from illness to illness, finally dying not quite a year and a half after her father. This event is not in Didion’s book of the same title, though it could have been because it happened when the memoir was still in galleys. With a couple of more years of distance, she includes Quintana’s death in the play.
Here is where the production becomes problematic for me. I know that these tragedies are real and that they happened to Joan Didion, then between the ages of 69 and 71. Dunne was two years older and Quintana was 39 at the time of her death, a real shock. Also, if you’ve ever seen a picture of Didion, she is a tiny, bird-like woman. She looks as if a breeze could knock her over. But apparently, nothing can. She withstands these blows with her self-created armor and by making art. She “writes her way out of them,” as she put it. But adding the daughter’s death to the mix becomes, I think, emotional overkill. The play lacks the laser focus the book maintains, thus causing us (or me, anyway) to shut down—magical thinking?—and not feel the pity and terror I did when I did when I read this memoir of mourning on the page.
Didion speaks frequently of the “vortex effect,” and methods to avoid its pull—not going down certain streets or into places that might trigger memories. When Quintana is hospitalized in California (after her mother had urged her to go, telling her she would “definitely”—another of her “magic” words—be all right, Quintana collapsed at the airport upon arrival at LAX. This time, she had a brain bleed on top of everything else, and Didion had to decamp to where her family had spent so much time when they were young and laboring under the delusion of safety. An image she repeats is of her and John swimming into a cave in the ocean near their Malibu home, and it was necessary to catch the swell at just the right moment, or the feat wasn’t possible. Images of birth, as well as death, abound.
The set by Rob Koharchik, is a simple room with one well-cushioned chair and a mission-style coffee table downstage where Syer frequently perches. Blues are prominent, indicating both water and a cloudy sky. Syer’s technique of looking directly at the audience for this intimate exchange works well, but the turning from left to right to straight ahead seems a little “stagy.” Priscilla Lindsay’s direction is otherwise subtle. Syer is dressed with simple elegance by Wendy Meaden and Ryan Koharchik’s lights are evocative. Justin Been, whose sound design I usually admire, provides the production’s only weak link. The occasional sound of ocean waves or a bit of music distracted me from the experience rather than enhancing it.
It is wonderful to have Fontaine Syer back in St. Louis where, selfishly, I believe she belongs. But her life is elsewhere now, so this visit must suffice. Her presence reminded me of the olden days (30 or so years ago) when I first saw her company, The Theatre Project Company, and it was my introduction to independent theatre—like way too many other St. Louisans, I thought “going to a play” meant The Muny, the Fox, or the American Theater (in full operation back then). I was fascinated and energized by these young artistic adventurers. Soon, I found these weren’t the only ones doing this kind of work, and the scales fell from my eyes.
Syer is taller than Didion, but she has the author’s delicacy and beautiful bone structure. Her portrayal includes a breakdown or two, but mostly, she is matter-of-fact, occasionally robotic. While the daunting one-person show before us here is not the best performance I’ve ever seen Fontaine Syer give, at least partly due to the play’s being less strong than its source, it is still so good to see her at all.
The Year of Magical Thinking continues through Jan. 30. You may call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 FM Radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT