THEATER | "The Year of Magical Thinking": Nimbus's wand fails to produce sparks

Barbara Berlovitz. Photo by Liz Neerland, courtesy Nimbus.

In 2003, Joan Didion's husband of 39 years, John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack at the couple's dinner table. Didion's memoir The Year of Magical Thinking recounts the writer's grief at that event even as the couple's adult daughter Quintana struggled with serious health issues that ultimately led to her death in 2005 at the age of 39—after Magical Thinking had been published as a book, but before Didion adapted the book into the play that debuted in 2007 and is now having its regional premiere presented by Nimbus.

Presenting the play is a most welcome programming choice by Nimbus, and Theatre de la Jeune Leune co-founder Barbara Berlovitz would seem to make for a dream (one-woman) cast. Unfortunately, this production, directed by Liz Neerland, disappoints—not greatly, but still, disappoints—in many respects.

the year of magical thinking, presented at nimbus theatre through may 21. for tickets ($10-$15) and information, see nimbustheatre.com.

Berlovitz has a good bead on her character, who uses the critical thinking and probing habits of mind that have made her one of America's most acclaimed essayists to sustain her through a pair of devastating personal tragedies. It's a challenging role, since the Didion character plays her cards close to the vest—there are no crying jags, screams of despair, or melodramatic narratives. Even within this tight framework, though, Berlovitz's affect is all too steady. I wonder whether another actress, perhaps working with another director, might have paced this material more dynamically so as to build more steam as the play hits its emotional peaks.

Another challenging aspect of this script is that it's elliptical and non-linear, with the character going on tangents and making parenthetical observations, approaching its themes in a circumspect manner that belies the supreme craft that went into its writing. What's wanted here is a complete embodiment of this character, a performance that makes the audience believe they're listening in on Didion's spontaneous inner thoughts. Berlovitz, however, makes her stops, starts, and turns with a deliberation that never lets you forget this is a scripted monologue.

She's not helped by Josh Cragun's set, which is functional but unattractive and does little to evoke a sense of Didion's world. The gauzy greys might be intended to evoke a higher plane among the clouds, but put a couple of couches in there and it would work better as a set for No Exit. Jake Davis's sound design also pings in with intrusive, distracting, and unnecessary effects. More effective is Mitchell Frazier's warm lighting design, which subtly modulates the space's mood over the course of the 90-minute show.

Those many readers who were moved by Didion's book will be interested to see how this theatrical adaptation incorporates the author's second loss. Those who haven't read the book, though—me included—might do better to spend an evening with it than to meet this material under the aegis of this competent but flat production.

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Jay Gabler's picture
Jay Gabler

Jay Gabler (@JayGabler) is a digital producer at The Current and Classical MPR.