The stage adaptation of Joan Didion’s best-selling memoir of grief, on now through August 11 at ACT Theatre, is a beautifully performed, communal catharsis over the inevitability of death. But its attempt at universality leaves it a flattened version of the original.
Joan Didion’s gorgeous and gut-wrenching memoir The Year of Magical Thinking translates the fog of grief to the page in a way that seems like it shouldn’t be possible. There’s a simultaneous murkiness and specificity to Didion’s memory piece about the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and the concurrent life-threatening illness that afflicted her only child, Quintana. Didion’s prose is some of the most clear-eyed and precise in all American literature, and that directness makes for a deeply moving vehicle for a story about paralyzing loss.
The Year of Magical Thinking is a different experience translated to the stage. Adapted by Didion herself, this solo performance piece is largely transposed from the book, with some rearranging and additional material added. Arguably, the story’s most devastating moment came after the book was published, and that’s incorporated here.
ACT Theatre’s production, directed by Victor Pappas, features an immaculately understated set by Catherine Cornell — dark wood flooring, a single chair and side table, a paneled backdrop with sparingly used projections. Suzanne Bouchard performs the monologue with carefully calibrated levels of warmth, self-deprecation and despair.
The show can certainly be moving, but it’s ultimately a flattened version of the book. At the top, Bouchard’s Didion offers a kind of warning: “This happened on December 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you.” In the book, the opening is instead devoted to detailing the minutiae of the file name and date on the Microsoft Word document Didion used to organize her thoughts in the wake of tragedy. It’s the kind of idiosyncratic, personal detail that the book is full of — an evasion that turns out to be deeply revealing. The play’s feint at universality, prodding the audience with an insistence on our shared human experience, dilutes this.
Perhaps this kind of framing is necessary to turn such a personal history into a monologue anyone could deliver. After all, that’s not Joan Didion on stage, and though Bouchard is a wonderful performer, it’s hard to imagine anyone recreating the feeling of Didion’s sublimated agony that emerges in her book. Bouchard doesn’t sublimate much of anything; her character’s emotions are shared upfront.
ACT’s production may provide communal catharsis over the inevitability of death, but that doesn’t come close to what Didion accomplishes in her work’s original form. And there’s no way to evaluate this show apart from its source material. It’s a cover version that’s competently — even beautifully — performed, but does it need to exist when the original version and all of its beguiling contradictions is right there?
The Year of Magical Thinking runs through 8/11 at ACT Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets up to $47, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral restroom on the second floor near the elevator (far away from the Falls Theatre, where this show is held). Financial accessibility: discounted tickets are available, including pay-what-you-can tickets on Sunday nights; see info here. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Dusty Somers is a lifelong Seattleite whose love of the arts has resulted in a distressingly large physical media collection. Right about now, he’s probably watching a movie, seeing a play or listening to a record. He has covered theatre for City Arts, The Seattle Times, and NWTheatre.