Sarah Day Plumbs Joan Didion’s Grief in APT’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’

Sarah Day Plumbs Joan Didion’s Grief in APT’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’
''I'm trying to tell you what you need to know'': Day purges grief and self-revelation in APT's 'The Year of Magical Thinking'

She’s there as you arrive in the Touchstone Theater, sitting on stage in a chair with a notebook open on her lap. She surveys the audience with a mix of tentative welcome and an occasionally furrowed brow of impatience. You’ve effectively entered the candlelit living room of author/journalist Joan Didion—or, more precisely, Sarah Day effortlessly inhabiting Didion’s skin.   

From the end of 2003 to the beginning of 2005, Didion endured a brutal and tragic emotional stretch that saw her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, suddenly die of a heart attack and her daughter, Quintana, in and out of comas and hospital ERs until she died as well. Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, an account of her thought processes during that time, as a means of coming to terms with the grieving process. Day makes sure that American Players Theatre‘s production of the one-woman play based on the book (running in repertory through October 4) carries every ounce of weight and emotion.

The matter-of-fact tone is set almost immediately. “It will happen to you,” says a Day-as-Didion, dressed in a gray outfit that seems to straddle grief and recovery. “I’m trying to tell you what you need to know.”

Didion was both a writer and a total control freak, and you can see both strains emerging in the detailed, almost clinical way she records and recounts the events of the night her husband died. She recreates her reality out of these trivial details, things like Chris Matthews and hamburgers, and she convinces herself that if she can just create and follow a set of rigid rules—that “if” is part of the whole magical thinking bit—her husband will somehow come back. It seems preposterous to think that a woman as intelligent as insightful as Didion could believe that hanging onto her dead husband’s shoes and honoring a promise to keep her daughter safe could have the power to reverse tragedy and restore order to the universe. But such is the working of the human mind in the face of powerlessness and obliterative grief.

Director Brenda DeVita knows she’s dealing with a consummate pro in Day, and she’s kept her production as simple as possible, all the better to let Day’s talents sparkle. Day alternates her delivery between sitting, standing and small amounts of pacing. She directs the script’s most powerful passages like lasers into the audience, locking eyes with patrons and holding their gazes the way she’d do with a best friend or confessor.

Day’s expressions hammer home the best parts of Didion’s memoir. Day delivers one of the play’s most powerful and repeated lines, a memory of the last words Didion’s husband would say to her at the end of their frequent arguments, shepherding it from a memory to a core insight into Didion’s character and grief reaction: “Must you always be right? Must you always have the last word? Just this once, can’t you let it go?”

Didion’s play has no intermission to interrupt its nearly two hours, and while that’s sensible—how on earth could you unplug for even fifteen minutes from this gripping emotional journey?—it’s also exhausting, for the audience and for Day. At one point, Day crouches on the floor and asks the audience, “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” and the toll shows in her eyes.  

The tragic events in Didion’s life took place almost a full decade ago, and some of the remembrances she shares in the play are more than four decades old, but they still feel raw, immediate and timeless. If you’re a parent, this play, and Day’s honest performance, will pierce you to the core. Even if you’re not, you’ll be hard pressed not to leave the theater shaken and affected. As Didion so astutely notes, life changes in the instant. And she and Day have told us what we need to know.