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Thu October 13, 2011
Exploring Grief and Recovery Through "Magical Thinking"
Writer Joan Didion has built her career by turning her gaze outward. Whether exploring political turmoil in El Salvador or the back lots and bedrooms of Hollywood, Didion writes in a style referred to as literary journalism.
By Steve Walker
Kansas City, Mo. – Writer Joan Didion has built her career by turning her gaze outward. Whether exploring political turmoil in El Salvador or the back lots and bedrooms of Hollywood, Didion writes in a style referred to as literary journalism.
But following Didion's husband's sudden death in 2003, she looked deep within to produce "The Year of Magical Thinking," which she later adapted for the stage. A new local theater company, Spinning Tree Theatre, makes its second appearance with the play's Kansas City debut.
After visiting their daughter at a New York hospital, the married writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne returned home for dinner. Within hours, Dunne was dead, leaving his wife and frequent writing partner a widow.
Didion later wrote a National Book Award-winning memoir about her grief and recovery called "The Year of Magical Thinking," which she turned into a play opening this week at The Living Room. Starring in the one-woman show is Kansas City actor Peggy Friesen.
"He has a massive heart attack in front of her and dies. And it takes up right there, at that moment, that evening," says Friesen. "And the rest of the play is her coming to grips with that reality, that he is indeed gone and not coming back. And it takes a long time for that to sink in."
Directing the play is Michael Grayman, who's also the co-founder of Spinning Tree Theatre, bringing the show to The Living Room performance space downtown. He says what he absorbed from Didion's candid memoir was how she channeled her grief onto the page.
"I do think that's how she got through this," says Grayman. "She thought, 'If I can write things down, I can get it out of my head. I can have more control. If it's not here, it's on paper.'"
People familiar with Didion from, say, PBS's The Charlie Rose Show, know what a distinct persona she embodies. Now 76, she's bone-thin if not brittle yet intellectually magnetic.
Friesen says the play works because she's not called upon to impersonate Didion.
"I'm not literally playing Joan Didion but I'm playing a character, a writer, who suffers a terrible loss," says Friesen. "But they are the words of Joan Didion, beautiful words."
Friesen reads a passage from the play that defines what Didion meant by magical thinking.
"Magical thinking is a phrase I learned when I was reading anthropology," reads Friesen. "Primitive cultures operate on magical thinking. If we sacrifice the virgin, the rain will come back. If I keep his shoes..."
In Joan Didion's new book, the author explores in more detail the death of her daughter, Quintana, which came only two years after that of her husband. "Blue Nights" will be published in November.
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