Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 2, 2009

The Year of Magical Thinking

TheaterWorks, Hartford
through May 24
By Karolina Sadowicz

"Do you think it will be sad?" a woman in the audience asks her companion. The subject of "The Year of Magical Thinking" makes the audience uneasy. The play, and the book on which it's based, was written by Joan Didion about the loss of her husband and daughter, and the mental game of avoidance and denial--or magical thinking--that followed.

Annalee Jeffries portrays Didion, in the one-woman show with an abundance of terse, dry wit and a creeping vulnerability that resurfaces when least expected. Though the tragedies at the core of "Thinking" are overwhelming, Jeffries fearlessly navigates Didion's tightrope walk to escape grief. When the audience anticipates a breakdown, she is controlled, defiant, often sarcastic. In a brightly lit living room, she recounts feigning the process of grieving, but inside rejecting grief in hope that not yielding to it will bring back her husband.

The strength of the story and the performance is that it defies expectations, in particular for those who are not familiar with the book. The set and Didion's clothing are in pale neutral colors; the lighting changes subtly to signal shifts in tone or mood, but is rarely stark. The music, too, is soft, spare, and ethereal. Despite Didion's direct, unflinching manner, there are no harsh notes, no melodrama. There is no self-pity. Steve Campo's disciplined direction keeps the production focused, even when Didion's intensity wanes.

With the writer's suffering kept at bay, the audience never experiences the quick descent or visceral meltdown that might be expected from the subject. But what is revealed, and completely entrancing, is a capacity in humans for both hope and self-delusion, and the deep need to transcend the darkest of times. In her controlled and willful avoidance of the reality of death, Didion exposes the fragility and uncertainty in all those who have family, friends, and the capacity to love.

Jeffries' performance brings depth to the narrative voice, never apologizing for its bluntness, but never registering as cold. Her voice, mannerisms, and spot-on timing create an electrifying, honest performance of this thought-provoking memoir.