REVIEW: Theater production reanimates classic Didion essay

Adapted from Joan Didion’s seminal essay “The White Album,” Lars Jan’s theatrical production comprises elements of Didion’s attempt to capture American history from 1968 to 1978. (Photo courtesy of UCLA Center for the Art of Performance)

California has survived on a number of familiar stories. There is the story of James Marshall and the Gold Rush. There is the story of the doomed Donner Party from which Californians have extracted the lesson that it is distinctly possible for all people to betray their own blood. From parents, there are the cautionary tales of earthquakes and the Santa Anas, the warnings that when they come — and they will — the tree will collapse on the sedan, the mind will be shocked to flash point.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

This is the first sentence of Joan Didion’s seminal essay “The White Album,” which borrows its title from The Beatles’ experimental record. It remains one of the most iconic openings of any American essay. Just as striking, however, is what Didion adds in the following paragraph as a caveat: “Or at least we do for a while.”

What Didion is hinting at are the troubled terms of our existence. She writes, “We live entirely … by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

But what if we cannot draw cogent connections in our lives, and what if the “disparate images” we see do not lend themselves to any “narrative lines” we know? At what point do our stories — the ones we make to comfort ourselves — desert us?

“The White Album” — spanning nearly 40 pages and written over a 10-year period from 1968 to 1978 — undertakes the task of trying to make sense of 1960s America, a time in history devoid of any intelligible zeitgeist. It was a period when Didion herself reported, mostly from California, not a cohesive narrative but “flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting room experience.”

Now, over 40 years since its publication, Didion’s essay has been reincarnated. Lars Jan, visual artist and director of Early Morning Opera, has adapted “The White Album” into a breathtaking theatrical piece. The West Coast portion of the tour opened at UCLA’s Ralph Freud Playhouse and ran from April 5 to 7.

Like Didion’s essay, Jan’s production resists the enterprise of traditional storytelling. Jan presents the fractured stills captured in “The White Album” — Didion’s interviews with Linda Kasabian, her reportage of the Black Panther Party, her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and many beside — as a kaleidoscope of haunting images that appear “more electrical than ethical.” Jan stages fragmented vignettes that arrange themselves not into a puzzle, but into a handful of glass shards with no corresponding edges.

In an era when “fake news” has become a fixture of our lives, where senselessness often offers itself as the only explanation for things, “The White Album” proves to be a timeless and timely piece. It is the very incomprehensibility of life on which both Didion’s essay and Jan’s performance are predicated.

To capture the “cutting room experience” Didion describes in her essay, Jan’s “White Album” relies on some unusual artistic choices. First, there are two audiences in the theater during the performance: an “outer” audience that spectates from traditional seating, and an “inner,” college-aged audience that sits onstage witnessing the mayhem unfold and partaking in it themselves.

Dominating the stage is a large rectangular house; its all-white interior, frequently colored by flashes of neon light, can be seen through tall glass panels. Within this structure, the piece establishes many different settings. The audience, always engaged, is transported from the office of Didion’s psychiatrist to The Doors’ recording studio on Sunset Boulevard, from a party with Janis Joplin to a Students for a Democratic Society meeting at San Francisco State University.

Leading performer, Mia Barron, who is also Jan’s co-creator, achieves the impressive feat of reciting nearly the entirety of “The White Album” as one of the show’s sole narrators.

Clad in a white long-sleeve shirt and tan halter skirt — with a middle-part dividing her brown hair — Barron convincingly plays the role of Didion herself. She delivers Didion’s famous anecdotes with a cool, sinistral energy, and she eerily conjures a woman who, despite being named a Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year in 1968, was also characterized by a psychiatrist as having a “fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive view of the world around her.”

Barron succeeds in depicting both a woman and an era experiencing bizarre and occasionally violent events. The murder trial of the Ferguson brothers, the nurse who watched as Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton bled to death, the stranger who showed up at Didion’s home on Franklin Avenue, empty-handed but still offering “Chicken Delight” — these comprised a montage of scenes which, to Didion, meant nothing and everything.

“I believe this to be an authentically senseless chain of correspondences,” Didion admits, “but in the jingle-jangle morning of that summer it made as much sense as anything else did.”

Following the staged performance, both inner and outer audiences are merged into one. There is no longer distinction between cast and audience, director and usher, as all are open to partake in a discussion.

“I lived through all of this,” one woman stood up and affirmed at the production I attended, “and nothing really made sense then. It doesn’t really make sense now.”

Many often misread Didion’s essay as one of sheer cynicism. Jan’s production reminds us that “The White Album” is not a project of senselessness, but a project about senselessness. Yes, Didion elucidates the horror of disorder, of being unable to find “the sermon in the suicide, the social or moral lesson in the murder of five,” but she provides hope that a life can still be manageable and fulfilling amid such chaos.

In his director’s note, Jan contends that by “laying bare the near breakdown of her coping mechanism,” Didion has distilled the nonsense of her life into “one of the most illuminating stories of all.” He has reproduced this frightening affect with his stunning stage adaptation.

Midway through the performance, Barron emerges from the dark; she is suddenly atop the glass house. Fog clouds her facial features, and she stands stiffly, arms by her side, as a hazy light emanates from behind her. Staring blankly forward, she seems confused, frightened even, and she is paralyzed by the accounts she has just detailed. She has lived through these accounts onstage.

“There were rumors. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable,” she rattles off, holding a pause and then continuing. “But nothing was unimaginable.”

“Everything was unmentionable,” Barron says. “But nothing was unimaginable.”

Therein lies the difference, and therein lies the hope.