Turner’s powerful performance at Arena

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Robert Friedman

Kathleen Turner portrays a grieving Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking at Arena Stage. The one-woman play is based on Didion’s book of the same name, which she wrote after her husband suffered a fatal heart attack and her daughter fell into a coma in 2005.
Photo by C. Stanley

When it came time for Joan Didion to give away the clothes of her deceased husband of 40 years, fellow writer John Gregory Donne, she couldn’t part with his shoes. John would need them when he came back, she told herself.

Just after John’s death in New York, where it is three hours later than in Los Angeles, she wondered whether they could go back to their home there and “have a different ending on Pacific time?”

I know how she feels. Ginny, my wife of 45 years, a teacher and an artist, passed away three years ago, but the desk in
her work room remains intact. The Holt Handbook, to help students learn to write clearly, remains in place, as do her sketchpads and pencils. If I change the items on the desk, I fear her spirit will leave the house.

Grief is universal, writer-playwright Joan Didion — and actress extraordinaire Kathleen Turner —  tell us in Didion’s play The Year of Magical Thinking. But each human experiences it in her or his individual and, for a time, often “magical” way.

Two losses at once

The words and the emotions resonate deeply in this production at Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle — a theater small enough to seem an extension of the living room in which the play takes place.

Didion has turned her 2005 memoir of the time in her life when her husband suffered a fatal heart attack while her daughter was in a deep coma (she later died) into a one-act, one-woman play. Turner both intelligently and viscerally plays out the writer’s words on stage, devoting almost two hours to telling it like it will be — with variations.

Didion’s loss, in the memoir and the play, is sudden for her husband but lingering for her daughter, and Turner skillfully tackles both the heart-heavy pain and the ongoing dread.

She is on the edge of tears; she tries to joke; she tries to learn the names, death tolls or overall serious consequences of the myriad medical conditions that may or may not have, or possibly will, affect husband and/or daughter. If one learns the terms and the rules (whether they exist or not), one may feel that the outcome will somehow, magically, differ.

At times when it seems the emotional pain could lead to a breakdown, Turner pulls herself together — and gives a report on the event from an ironic perspective. You know it’s acting, but you get the feeling that Turner is transferring some of her personal reality into her interpretation of Didion.

Channeling Didion’s grief

Turner has this voice — husky, breathy, raspy — that makes it difficult for her to capture the quality of a “cool customer.” That’s the way Didion says she was described by medical personnel and others for her always enquiring and seemingly organized mind.

But it is in Kathleen Turner’s body and facial movements — the way she seemingly searches for words, maneuvers her hands, how she uses her full acting soul — that lets the audience see and feel the pain, whether she is attempting to mask it or not.

Of course, Turner is a renowned stage and screen veteran, with an Oscar nomination for Peggy Sue Got Married, and Tony nominations for bothCat on a Hot Tin Roof and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But the natural way she moves and sits and pauses throughout the production suggest some excellent directing by Gayle Taylor Upchurch, as well.

David Zimmerman’s set — the overloaded book cases, the comfortable-looking chairs — is just right for the writer’s living-musing-writing room. The best feature of the lighting design by Jesse Belsky occurs when the dimming denotes a brief emotional closing of a thought or an anecdote. When Didion-Turner recalls her and her family’s life in Malibu, sound director Roe Lee has the sea murmur tastefully.  

The subject of the play can also be viewed, if you are so inclined, anthropologically. That’s what Didion/Turner tells us: Magical thinking is an anthropological term describing primitive cultures taking actions to control circumstances. Such as: “If we sacrifice the virgin, the rain will come back.”

But deep down we know, if we throw away the shoes, or we clear the desk, our loved ones will neither come back nor remain in our memories.

Just about everyone in this world will experience grief, we are told both in, and between, the lines of the play. And though the experience is deeply personal, we share such experiences with others.

Our responses to loss may seem primitively irrational to the brain, but they are true to everyone’s heart.    

Ticket details

The Year of Magical Thinking runs through Nov. 20. Performances are Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. There will be matinees, at noon, on Wednesday, Nov. 9, and Tuesday, Nov. 15.

Tickets range from $40 to $90. There are a limited number of half-price tickets, called HOTTIX, that are made available 30 minutes before curtain for most performances, subject to availability. They must be purchased in person at the box office. Limit of two per person.

General admission tickets may be purchased at www.arenastage.org, by calling (202) 488-3300, or at the theatre box office, 1101 6th St. SW.

The Waterfront-SEU Metro stop on the Green line is one block from the theater. Parking is available at the theater for $16 to $22, or at meters on nearby streets.