Grieving from New York City : Ensemble presents Joan Didion’s play about death

Linda Purl DAVID BAZEMORE PHOTO
Linda Purl
DAVID BAZEMORE PHOTO

Here are the facts: One day in 2003, author Joan Didion sat down for dinner with her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. After some small talk he keeled over dead from a heart attack. This happened while their daughter, Quintana, was in the hospital in a coma from septic shock. Two years later, she too died.

More facts: Ms. Didion’s memoir of that time, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” was released to great critical acclaim, placing it in the company of other noted writing on grief. After her daughter passed away, she adapted, lengthened, and changed the book into a one-woman show for Broadway, where it starred Vanessa Redgrave. And now Ensemble Theater Company, with Linda Purl starring and Jenny Sullivan directing, opened this last weekend.

Ms. Purl is much younger than Ms. Didion, but she gets the no-nonsense tone of the author down straightaway. We immediately sense the play is not going to be one of melodrama, theatrics, or crying, but a terse parsing of every statement uttered about death, digging down under the cliches and tearing out the roots. Ms. Didion circles back again and again to criticism lobbed against her: “You always have to have the last word.” Life with Joan was probably not easy.

But this may be our best guide into the land of grief. The year that she talks about, the year of magical thinking, takes hold of even the most logical processes and upends them. Ms. Didion can throw out her dead husband’s clothes, but she can’t part with his shoes. He might, she thinks, come home. She asks for an autopsy because in her mind, if doctors find something different they could fix it. He could still come home.

She speaks about the “vortex effect,” that spiral of self-pity and grief triggered by seeing a familiar object, or driving past a house once lived in during happier times. She talks about a drive in Los Angeles fraught with detour upon detour, as so much of the area is loaded with memories.

Ms. Didion’s play jumps back and forth in time, with every memory feeding into a current moment of grief. Now everything comes tinged with sadness, and Ms. Didion loops back to certain images: her daughter with hair bleached by the sun and chlorine, halcyon days in Malibu when everything seemed perfect.

But really, this play is not about the two people who pass. It’s about Ms. Didion. Descriptions of her husband and daughter are scant, just poetic glimpses. Whether it’s the adaptation or the original source, the focus is the internal rattlings of several consciousnesses rolling about in a writer’s brain, every single reaction held up to a dissector’s scalpel. As Ms. Didion said in a “60 Minutes” interview, the person grieves over what they have lost, not what the dead person has lost. But this, she says, is self-pity.

Her crazy days do not manifest themselves outward into destructive or addled behavior, as far as we know. Ms. Didion does not go on a bender; she doesn’t curl up into a ball. They are all personal. Can we learn from this method, even though we can never fully prepare for loss? One wonders. Maybe you need to be Ms. Didion.

If there’s religion, it comes in two stages. A self-confessed agnostic with Episcopalian upbringings, she comes out of the play with no sense of a god looking down on us. “There is no eye on the sparrow,” as she says. But her interest in geology and the constant slow, tectonic change of life brings her to something like Buddhism.

Ms. Sullivan’s direction is unobtrusive, with a simple chair and side table as set, a rear-projection backdrop, acts marked by first lines of texts projected up there as well. Linda Purl keeps us engaged through the entire 100 minutes, even though there are some stretches where the air conditioning and the repetition make for nap time. (Not this reviewer, but there were some nodding heads.)

There is much to chew over afterward, depending on the viewer’s relationship to death and grieving. But one last niggling thought: after two deaths, including numerous trips to the ICU and the ER, on top of hiring a two-seater to fly Ms. Didion and her ailing daughter from Los Angeles to New York … how much was that medical bill?

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING
When: Through April 21. 8 p.m. Tues. – Sat. 2 and 7 p.m. Sun. 4 p.m. matinee April 13.
Where: Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara Street
Cost: $40 – $65
Information: 965-5400 or www.ensembletheatre.com

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