By J. Scott Hill
Death comes to everyone in time, and if one is very lucky they leave behind people who grieve them. Everyone grieves differently, yet everyone grieves the same. There are festive wakes and dour funerals and uplifting memorial services and comfortable-looking caskets and manicured cemeteries and decorative urns and an endless string of euphemisms to help people more easily cope with death. We tend toward ceremony, ritual, and metaphor to ease our emotional suffering. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified the Five Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The grief-stricken experience these stages in no particular order; one does not necessarily experience all of the stages, but everyone experiences at least two. Joan Didion gives the world an intimate view of her lived-experience of the bargaining stage in The Year of Magical Thinking, the one-woman show she adapted (with significant elaboration) from her National Book Award-winning memoir. Court Theatre presents the Chicago premiere of The Year of Magical Thinking, under the direction of Charles Newell. Chicago treasure Mary Beth Fisher takes on the formidable task of playing Joan.
Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking deals with her adjustment to being a widow. John Gregory Dunne, her husband of nearly forty years and sometimes collaborator, died suddenly in December of 2003, while their daughter, Quintana, was in the hospital in a coma. In August of 2005, while Didion was gearing up for the book tour for Magical Thinking, she suffered another devastating loss, which I will not describe here. Courageously, Didion expanded upon her memoir for the stage adaptation, including this compounded tragedy. Her style is New Journalism yet scientific — always holding her personal experience at arm’s length as she describes it, marked by a combination of anxiety and emotional coolness, as if she were composing her prose while levitating over the scene during an out-of-body experience. While this has been Didion’s style in her non-fiction for most of her career, it is particularly suited to the performance of the subject matter. No one could tell these stories of introspection and grief otherwise without melting into a murky puddle of pathos.
Upon entering the theatre, I was immediately aware that the exposed set, even under the house lights, is a simple gem. Against a black background, a single small room is raised into the air on a black platform. The herringbone hardwood floor is roughly the size of a prison cell with only a sturdy chair and table upon it. The floor has a wide and definite border and overhangs its platform, so that under stage lighting, it appears to be hovering over nothingness. Scenic Designer John Culbert has cleverly assured, even before the character Joan takes the stage, that we can sense her isolation.
The theatre goes black. The stage lights come up and Mary Beth Fisher as Joan has materialized alone in that small room that floats in a black and empty universe. Joan begins, “When this happens to you….” When, never if. Joan is giving her audience some much-needed guidance in preparation for inevitable grief, a primer in how to well negotiate the logical and emotional traps set by such an acute and devastating change.
This is a fine example of why Mary Beth Fisher is a treasure. Fisher as Joan is not exactly cool, calm, and collected: she is warm, anxious, and collected. Another actor, another excellent actor, would be likely to take the character Joan through a number of emotional breakdowns and breakthroughs.
Part of me wanted to see Fisher in a reprise of her role as Eleanor in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘N’ Roll at the Goodman last year (also directed by Charles Newell). Eleanor traversed a wide range of emotions as she struggled with her own protracted illness, her impending death, and her husband’s utter failure to make her his priority. Joan’s emotional makeup is nothing like Eleanor’s. Joan is neither stolid nor mechanical, but she is obsessed with making things right, with being right. “Fix it,” is her battle cry. Joan is not relaying what she is feeling; she is relating what she felt. She is without her sounding board and foil, her muse, the love of her life. She is waiting, antithetically to what she knows to be correct, for her dead husband’s impossible return.
Joan’s intellect has been perverted, by her grief, into magical thinking: thinking that she must do the right things, prepare in the right ways so that her John can return, knowing full well that he cannot. Mary Beth Fisher as Joan holds her recent past in her hand like a piece of amber, turning it over and over, examining it from multiple angles and distances, painstakingly describing every tragic inclusion. The power of this performance is its containment. She must always be right and yet in this most devastating of instances can not possibly be right. Her tinge of anxiety masks the roiling wet flashbacks in her mind. Her lifetime in journalism gives her the appearance of interrogative impartiality even in self-examination, while she knows full well that this simply cannot be the case.
Mary Beth Fisher plays Joan with a subtlety of awareness and delusion that makes audience members inhale hard, as if stubbing their toes on the contradictions. They shake their heads with a note of sympathy and a prayer that they may never be able to empathize with Joan — that Joan would have not been right at the onset in her warning, “When this happens to you….” We never truly pity Joan, and she never seeks the comfort of pity.
It is impossible to discern what of this subtlety comes from Fisher’s intimacy with the text and the character, and what comes from the guiding hand of Charles Newell. Their collaboration in presenting this understated deconstruction of self has a lingering effect, revealing the nature and depth of this grief more and more in the hours and days after one sees this performance.
There are five stages of grief and we see Joan Didion’s experience of one stage, bargaining: I must do this or that so my husband can return. We know he can’t. She knows he can’t. Knowing what is true and right doesn’t lessen the bargaining whatsoever. Being right does not modify the desire, the need, to have him back. Joan Didion may have worked through her grief in her prose, but her impossible bargains have not relented to another stage of grief, and she has not worked past it.
DO NOT MISS Mary Beth Fisher living out Joan Didion’s rational insanity in the wake of death.
(“The Year of Magical Thinking” runs through Feb 14, at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue. 773-753-4472)
The Year of Magical Thinking production photos by Michael Brosilow.