NO ONE GETS OUT ALIVE
Author Joan Didion’s powerful piece of writing, the elegiac monologue The Year of Magical Thinking, receives its Los Angeles premiere in this intimate production at the Elephant Theatre. Didion’s play, adapted from her book, describes what can only be called a bona fide annus horribilis, in which her beloved husband dies of a heart attack, shortly followed by her daughter’s perishment from a neurological disorder. A purpose of the piece, of course, is to communicate to us the universal nature of death and the rubble it can leave for those left behind. “This will happen to you” is one of the play’s opening lines – and it’s hard to argue with such a fact: Everyone is going to endure the death of a loved one, and grief, as the old koan goes, is the price we pay for loving someone.
However, that said, there’s something a tad unsatisfying about director David Robinson’s mostly straightforward production of the piece. It isn’t as though the performance by Judy Jean Berns is at fault – she’s a fine actor with the ability to capture the respective Kubler-Ross phases of grief as they unfold (twice, really, since the play contains two deaths). It’s that the production possesses a by-the-numbers quality that is less universal than it is numbing. You want to have sympathy for the character, but the general one-note mournfulness of the production instead unintentionally mimics the situation of being cornered at a family dinner party by some gloomy aunty who insists on boring you with her troubles.
Didion’s play tells how one night, between drinks and what would have been a nice dinner, her husband abruptly suffered a heart rupture and died on the living room floor. “Life changes on the instant,” notes the sibylline Didion – and there’s no instant like a sudden death to deposit the bereaved neatly on what must seem like the dark side of the moon. Didion tries to make sense of a situation for which there’s no sense possible; as a writer, her instinctive attempts to contextualize the events into a narrative allow her the blessing of distance that others might not have. Her astonishment that the world still carries on outside of her grief, her description of the funeral, and her bewilderment at her loss are all movingly affective. And then, just as Didion starts to come out of it, a second unexpected death occurs, forcing her to evaluate her relationship to the illusory things she once considered important.
Director Robinson’s production, reviewed at a final preview, consists only of performer Berns, a rocking chair, and a small table on which are (what we are meant to think) some of the dead husband’s former belongings. This is a show that purports to simply be you and the bereaved Didion in an intimate conversation about sadness. And Berns, caparisoned in a long cardigan and frequently making use of the creaky wicker rocking chair, is every inch the worldly widow woman, rendered wise through the searing crucifer of her experience. She fixes you with her basilisk eye and addresses the audience as though we were her close friends in a well-intentioned attempt to tell us what we need to know about grief. She does not appear to resemble Didion to any great degree, except, one supposes, in grief – and when the monologue describes how Didion was working on such-and-such a movie (she and her late husband John Gregory Dunne were screenwriters as well as novelists), she looks more like she should be standing on a pier in Nantucket mourning over her dead sailor grandson than on a movie set.
The “drama” such as it is, occurs on a subtextual level, as the character’s grief is subsumed beneath the struggle to put the sorrow into an intellectual context – an operation that’s doomed to be about as successful as trying to academically describe any feeling. Certainly, some of the moments depicted in the monologue crackle with emotional energy – such as the description of Didion’s husband’s moment of death and the frenzied horror of the immediate aftermath – but just as many seem tedious and careworn: The flat and somewhat tonally tired reactions of an entitled chattering-class academician who discovers that life contains some unavoidable truths and doesn’t get it.
Ultimately, the play’s insistence that this is The Quintessential Evocation of the mourning experience is more than a little patronizing – the play is suffused with the Upper West Side assumptions of the entitled Baby Boomer class that attempts to insist that no one has ever endured the experiences that someone of this class has been through. And while a sense of human empathy promotes our sympathy for Ms. Didion’s real world sorrows, they’re less successful as the stuff of compelling theatrical incident. The story itself is slight and virtually devoid of incident, while the cerebral nature of the philosophy suggests material that is better-suited for study than for dramatization.
The truth is, Didion’s correct: Everyone is going to have to go through something like this (if they’re lucky – if not, they’re going to just be the one who dies). Yet, that doesn’t make a particular description of the process more or less compelling than any other description. Indeed, you’ve probably heard many more exciting tales from average people on the street.
photos by Garrison Burrell
The Year of Magical Thinking
Bright Eyes Productions at the Elephant Theatre in Los Angeles
scheduled to end on October 14, 2012
for tickets call 323-960-7774 or visit Plays411