For most people, the process of grieving the loss of a loved one is a private and unreachable period of life we all go through in different ways, lasting from hours or days to forever. It is a time most people can't share or choose not to. But the renowned writer Joan Didion is not most people. And when her husband of almost 40 years, the well-known writer John Gregory Dunne, dropped dead right before her eyes in 2003 as they were preparing to eat dinner, a process began that culminated in her authoring an award-wining book and an adaptation for the stage: The Year of Magical Thinking.
That play is now at Cesear's Forum, and under the direction of Greg Cesear it is a shattering yet thoroughly entertaining journey through the emotional vortexes and riptides that are unleashed by profound loss. That said, do not expect any wailing or rending of clothes. Didion, who is still kicking around at age 86, was an avatar of being "laid back" when that had real cachet. Indeed, when Didion accompanies her husband's body to the hospital, she is greeted by a supervising nurse who notes out loud that Joan is "a cool customer."
But underneath that calm and sometimes aloof exterior, there are forces at work that lead this talented writer into uncharted territories. Weeks later, when she is back at their apartment and packing up John's clothes, she decides not to get rid of his shoes because "he would need them when he returned." That impulse to imagine a deceased loved one as still being alive, expecting them to walk through that door even though we rationally know it's impossible, are shared by all of us. But Didion's bright, sharp-edged language brings new light and clarity to those sensations.
Further complicating this period for Didion is the fact that their adult daughter Quintana was in the hospital on the day her father died, suffering from a serious case of blood sepsis. The play charts Didion's external journey from one hospital to another along with her internal denial of reality, the "magical thinking" that she can somehow bring her husband back to life by force of will.
This 110-minute one-act is a demanding acting challenge, and fortunately longtime Cesear's Forum actor Julia Kolibab is more than equal to the task. In Kolibab's confident and sure-handed performance, Didion's grief is always present but submerged just under the surface of her trenchant and often witty observations about those around her. At the hospital she is assigned a social worker and her immediate thought is: "If they give you a social worker, you know you're in trouble."
As the play progresses, Didion's memory takes her back to happier days with her husband (with whom she often disagreed, insisting on always getting the last word with him) and her beloved daughter. Those memories take on even more weight when, two years later, another crippling tragedy is visited upon the family.
The play deals with much pain and loss, but is rescued by gleaming honesty and disarming frankness. Didion the playwright is a master craftsman, and that talent serves her well in a piece that, in other hands, could easily tip over into maudlin sentimentality. Whether she is using the metaphor of swimming through a riptide off the beach of their California home or dealing with the vortex of self-pity that threaten to drown her, language is her life raft.
The production is enhanced by the pastel-hued set design by Michael Larochelle that captures a bit of the Didion's California vibe, even though most of the play happens in New York City. And costume designer Inda Blatch-Geib has given Kolibab a series of loose and stylish tops that define different time frames.
As always, director Cesear pays close attention to the smallest details and gives his actor the room to explore Didion's brilliant writing (her eponymous memoir won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005).
Tucked under the Ohio Theatre lobby is a cozy space called Kennedy's Down Under, where Cesear's Forum has been situated for many years, presenting finely crafted productions of unique scripts. The Year of Magical Thinking offers a prime example of their skills.
The Year of Magical Thinking
Through December 11th at Cesear's Forum, Kennedy's Down Under in Playhouse Square, 1501 Euclid Ave., cesearsforum.com