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The Year of Wishful Striving

APT’s Sara Day enacts Joan Didion’s memoir with intensity

Jul. 2, 2014
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The audience laughed at the line: “You know when they assign you a social worker you’re in trouble.” But humor often hangs uneasily in American Players Theatre’s staging of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, taken from her memoir of death, suffering and mental surreality.

Her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, dies from a fatal dining-room table coronary. The title phrase is Didion’s term for her wishful striving to save him and, somewhat more probably, her hospitalized only child, comatose Quintana, in septic shock from pneumonia. “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” Didion is a lapidary phrase turner.

APT’s Core Company member Sara Day, one of the Midwest’s finest actors, exquisitely handles the entire script with, at times, searing intensity. This one-woman show uses no dramatic theatrical effects: a small two-level stage garlanded with a few flickering candles, a non-descript waiting room-type chair, an end table and books. Day often seems to hand you her bared soul, suggesting how trauma and grief might make you crazy. She returns from the ER, and “blood and the EKG electrodes are still on the floor.”

Such details trigger the desperate detective in her, who irrationally deduces that she might just resurrect him or save Quintana. The newlywed had fallen sick on Christmas Eve 2003. Didion’s character isn’t really likable, more supercilious—alluding several times to the Arthurian knight Gawain, to Tiffany bracelets, fancy writing assignments and film adaptations of her work. Gawain is metaphorically apt, the denied rightful heir to Camelot’s kingship. And grandiosity is clinically common “magical thinking.”

Day’s virtuosity fascinates with myriad nuanced gestures and emotions. The play breathes, through director Brenda DeVita’s deft pacing. Day often pauses or strolls around her chair and, in one superb moment, asks the audience, “Do you remember when I told you I got her a bracelet like this one?” Her wrist raised in the air is clarity, and her farewell to magic and Camelot. Quintana Roo Dunne died in 2005, after this story’s end.

The Year of Magical Thinking runs through Oct. 4, in APT’s Touchstone Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green. For tickets, visit www.americanplayers.org.


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