At least in its stage adaptation, the sole subject of Joan Didion’s
The Year of Magical Thinking is grief: how we cope with it, the deep instinct to deny its existence, the way that denial slowly erodes till we learn to assimilate it. Though it may be a moving experience on the page, the minute exploration of this emotional condition takes on a block-like quality when magnified for public scrutiny in a theater. Nobody could fail to commiserate with the enormity of Didion’s loss: The narrative chronicles the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death and the agonizingly protracted struggle to save her terminally ill newlywed daughter. Yet onstage, laid out in Vanessa Redgrave’s pellucid, precise tones, the solid wall of feeling inevitably begs listeners to look for cracks in it. Didion’s insistent focus on her sorrow pushes one away, giving the experience a cold and even a smug aura, as if nobody else but Didion had ever felt grief or known about it, because her career, having surrounded her with the trappings of wealth and celebrity, had somehow appointed her our optimal means for understanding it. She undoubtedly didn’t mean this, and Redgrave’s graceful directness easily dodges it, but the distancing element is there nonetheless, making the evening, uncomfortably, a little more like a Tiffany’s keepsake than a memento mori.