One of the most daunting phrases in pop culture is “one-man show,” both for performers and audience members.
When executed poorly, a one-man show can be a miserable experience for everyone. Ninety minutes of listening to just one person talk? That sounds like a boring lecture, or worse, a bad date.
But when done correctly, a one-man show can be a singularly splendid theatrical experience, moving and emotionally powerful. Thankfully, this is the case with The Year of Magical Thinking, the Bright Eyes Production onstage now at the Elephant Stages in Santa Monica.
The play is based on Joan Didion’s book of the same title, which recounts the shockingly sad two-year period of Didion’s life that saw her lose her husband to a heart attack and her daughter to complications from cerebral bleeding and septic shock. Published in 2005, the book received high critical praise, winning that year’s National Book Award for Nonfiction and earning nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
For those unfamiliar with Joan Didion or her work, this production serves as an excellent introduction to both. Didion, born in 1934, is a prolific writer of novels, essays and screenplays, and has enjoyed loyal readership since the late 1960s. Didion and her husband, John Dunne, were something of a power couple; not only were they both literary stars in their own right (Dunne was a renowned journalist for Time), but they were a respected screenwriting team. The pair enjoyed a relatively high-profile social life, participated in the New York and Los Angeles scenes and ensured that their adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, was well prepared for life as a socialite. Didion herself remains an iconic literary figure, a renowned proponent of feminism and a skillful wordsmith.
In the play, the character of Joan is written as an elegant but shaken woman unequipped to deal with such a massive personal tragedy. Originally starring Vanessa Redgrave on Broadway and in the West End, this L.A. premiere features the luminous Judy Jean Berns as Joan, who brings mesmerizing believability to the role. Berns paints Didion as graceful, strong-willed and unrelentingly smart. Because the age of the character and the actress allow for — and require — little movement, Berns imbues every small step with significance, letting her tempestuous emotions guide her around the small stage. Her rigid posture and nervous hand-wringing convey the inner warfare between maintaining her composure and giving in to total sadness. Berns’ understated use of props, especially her light fidgeting with a bracelet that originally belonged to her deceased daughter, lends a real degree of authenticity to her performance — it really feels like listening to a friend of your grandmother’s talk about her sad past on the front porch.
This effect is enhanced by the sparse set — just a white wicker chair and small side table with two of the books Didion mentions and a glass of water, set against a blue-lit backdrop — and extremely limited use of sound effects. Berns’ costume further cements the image of Didion as a classy old lady: a simple gray dress paired with a drapey lavender sweater, embellished with beautiful jewelry.
Berns’ interpretation of Didion’s work is stunning, but the play itself is a star in its own right. The clarity of the language Didion employs to pinpoint her exact feelings in each stage of her grief makes her struggle extremely relatable. Didion’s obsessive research into the medical aspects of both deaths is extremely prominent in the content of the play, demonstrating her powerful intellect, attention to detail and desperate need to analyze and understand the world around her.
In addition, Didion’s work with the chronology of her story is artful, interweaving Proust-like sensory flashbacks with the actual timeline, granting the audience insight into how joyful her life had been before being interrupted by her family’s death. Didion’s words demonstrate how she would careen among the varying emotions that accompany grief: peaceful one moment, then enraged, then finally depressed. As she explains in the beginning of the play, her aim in writing this was to prepare her listeners for how very unprepared they would be when a tragedy inevitably strikes. And she succeeds.
This play, thought-provoking and captivating, is incredibly well done. It’s a must-see for fans of Didion, or for those who just need a little catharsis. With the sprawling Santa Monica Boulevard theater scene just a few minutes away, it would be a crime not to take advantage of the smorgasbord of entertainment offered there.