Memoir of grief and healing makes Colorado stage premiere
Ryan Summerlin March 29, 2013
The Backstage Theatre presents the Colorado premiere of Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the play based on her memoir of the same name. The production opened at the Breckenridge Theatre on Thursday and runs for a total of eight shows through April 13.
“The Year of Magical Thinking” chronicles the time Didion spent coping with the unexpected loss of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, while their daughter, Quintana, was in a coma in the hospital.
“It’s a story of her journey to process this loss emotionally and intellectually,” said Backstage Theatre artistic director Christopher Willard, who directs the production. The play is based on Didion’s memoir about the death of her husband but also includes elements from her book, “Blue Nights.”
“Because this is the work of a supremely gifted writer, the experiences she shares are funny, surprising and ultimately redemptive,” Willard said. “There is no wallowing in the emotion.”
He called her journey “admittedly crazed” but said there are many lessons to be learned from it.
“What I love about the piece is how Didion approaches the piece as if creating a manual for maneuvering the pitfalls of grief,” he said.
Willard chose to bring “The Year of Magical Thinking” to the Backstage Theatre after going through his own process of dealing with grief over the death of his father in November 2011.
“I immediately saw in it a healing power for those who had experienced the same type of loss and were needing comfort and guidance in navigating its pain,” he said, noting “the power of theater” in its ability to “hand us useful tools on how to live our lives, make sense of the world around us and become better human beings.”
The set evokes an isolated place where Didion’s experiment of “magical thinking” could flower, Willard said. It takes place in a private room containing “the tools necessary to understand her husband’s death and in which she may fight the ever-confusing illness that plagues her daughter,” he said. Then it morphs into a dock adrift on the ocean, using Didion’s metaphor of water for life and death.
“To me, the final moments of the play carry the most power,” Willard said. “After a year of struggling with how to process the grief she has been experiencing, Didion comes to terms with what she has been feeling and finds a comforting path on which she will proceed.”
The denouement comes in what he described as “a beautiful theatrical moment.”
Denver-based actress Patty Mintz Figel, winner of the Westword’s Best Actress award, stars in the production. It’s her first one-woman show, but according to Willard, you’d never know it.
“We’ve been working together to discover the emotional core of the play, make sure those discoveries are represented onstage through action and experience and that the storytelling is constantly active and engaging,” he said. “She’s absolutely amazing. … I think people are going to be blown away by this performance and production.”
“We all experience loss differently,” said Figel, who rehearsed the show in her home to create the sense of isolation Didion experienced after the death of her husband.
“There is no road map for getting from one point to the other,” Figel said of grief. “We all must find our own way – but hopefully, in the telling of this well-crafted play, the audience will find hope from (Didion’s) story and realize ‘The world changes but also continues.’ I consider it truly an honor to speak her words.”