Over Dunne: Fontaine Syer rescues Joan Didion's awful Year of Magical Thinking

Jan 20, 2011 at 4:00 am

Here, in brief, is what happened: On the evening of December 30, 2003, Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne, writers both, returned to their Manhattan apartment after having spent time with their adopted daughter Quintana, who lay unconscious in the intensive-care unit of a nearby hospital (where she would remain for another 24 days). As they began to eat a simple dinner in front of their living-room fireplace, a sudden massive coronary event caused the 71-year-old Dunne's death. In an instant, a 39-year marriage came to an end.

Didion, age 69, then wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, an exploration of the power of grief to affect the mind. The evocative title alludes to Didion's surreal need to believe that her husband had not died and that she should prepare for his return. Prior to the book's publication in October 2005 (but surely after it had gone to press), Quintana died at age 39 — not so suddenly, perhaps, but more shockingly. After Magical Thinking became a bestseller, Didion adapted it into a one-woman theater piece; she expanded the material to include the death of her daughter. In March 2007 the one-act monologue, which starred Vanessa Redgrave, opened on Broadway, where it ran for five months. Now the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is restaging a production first seen last year at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

That's the evolution of the thing — though perhaps it should be added that some readers who have experienced their own personal tragedies find resonance in Didion's prose. I, alas, am unable to summon any empathy for her. As she describes her year of magical thinking, her selective memory exceeds the self-pity of which she occasionally accuses herself. Self-pity? This is an exercise in blatant narcissism. Is the intended message here that only through total self-absorption can one survive a sudden tragedy? For indeed, although the author begins the evening by stating that she has a message for us, her only concern — and it is a consuming concern — is with Joan.

This onstage character, by the way, does not have a last name; I suppose we're simply expected to know the identity of this Very Important Person who is addressing us. If memory serves, not once in the entire evening does she even tell us her husband's full name. He is simply John. We get no physical description of John, so he is impossible to visualize. The same is true of their daughter. And forget Quintana's husband, Gerry. By the time his wife dies, he has been vanquished from the story.

Despite the fact that Didion's reputation is that of an astute social commentator, in Magical Thinking she observes almost nothing. Instead we meet the name-dropping Joan, who lives her life jetting between Malibu beach homes and Honolulu hotel suites. Joan, who, rather like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, enjoys the high life at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The Joan who must always be right, must always have the last word. One of the hospital workers describes Joan as "a pretty cool customer." I would go further: She is a cold fish. (How many widows want to attend their husbands' autopsies?) Ever intent on telling doctors how to do their jobs, Joan is more interested in reeling off tongue-twisting lists of medications than in confronting emotions. She takes solace, not in people, but in geology. So instead of learning about her family, we receive instruction in tectonic plate shifts.

Now here is a truly magical contradiction: In the sublimely luminous personage of actress Fontaine Syer, this inaccessible woman becomes an object of interest. Syer infuses Joan with all the sensitivity and feeling that the script lacks. The brief flashes of guilt, the steely defensiveness, the impotent rage. This elegantly understated Year of Magical Thinking delivers a gorgeously acted and directed evening of theater — the distinction between actor and director being that the myriad contributions of director Priscilla Lindsay are invisible, having been totally imbued in Syer's calibrated work. Here, the direction is the performance.