Play: “The Year of Magical Thinking”
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Emerson Studio, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through January 30
Tickets: From $36; contact 314-968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Story: Based on the memoir by author Joan Didion, this one-woman show recounts Didion’s thoughts, emotions and analysis of the situation when she is confronted with the sudden and unexpected death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, in December 2003. This one-woman play deviates slightly from the book in that it extends into a second year as Didion cares for her gravely ill daughter, Quintana, until August 2005. The work’s title derives from an anthropological term meaning that if a person hopes strongly enough for a tragedy to be averted that will in fact happen as a result. In the play, Didion provides examples of her own lapses into fantasy as she deals with the shock of her husband’s death as well as the graveness of her daughter’s condition.
Highlights: Didion the playwright is every bit the wordsmith as Didion the novelist, screenplay writer, essayist and journalist. Consequently, her dialogue is crisp, cogent and brimming with clarity that conveys both her well-controlled emotions and her sharp inquisitiveness that makes her a master reporter of both facts and fantasy. Whether she intones, through the consummate performance of actress Fontaine Syer, that she is telling a story which everyone sooner or later will acknowledge first-hand, or shares the beautiful line of her husband and then daughter that “I love you more than even one more day,” she reveals herself to be an exquisite storyteller with poignancy, humor and affection.
Other Info: Syer and director Priscilla Lindsay collaborate for the second occasion in this one-act, 90-minute performance lovingly staged in The Rep’s Emerson Studio Theatre, having undertaken it initially a year ago at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. Syer, co-founder and artistic director of the memorable Theatre Project Company in St. Louis for 14 years, demonstrates clearly her own considerable charms and capabilities as she wholly embodies the strong spirit and fierce wit of Didion in the most sobering of circumstances.
Syer’s ability to turn a phrase with just the proper dash of emphasis, to stop in mid-sentence for effect or to push forward with the force of determination all convey both the will and the loneliness of the playwright. It’s a nuanced and finely etched portrayal that resonates with immediacy as well as understanding.
Lindsay’s direction is lovingly and finely sculpted, but nonetheless the show falters a bit down the stretch, and could benefit from pruning the performance time from five to seven minutes. Doesn’t sound like much, but it would make a positive difference.
Rob Koharchik’s direct set design works from a quote in the play referring to water flowing into a cave, and he emphasizes the cool blue of the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop for the aesthetically pure New York City apartment Didion shared with Dunne. His set is clean and well-appointed by props artisan Emily Frei — including a copy of the title work on a handsome coffee table — much like Didion herself in Wendy Meaden’s warm but controlled and patrician chic attire worn by Syer. Ryan Koharchik’s lighting suitably shifts to complement lighter or sadder moments, while Justin Been’s selective sound design beautifully supports the mood with brief, judicious piano notes, ocean swells or other subtle elements that underpin the mood onstage.
Warm, thoughtful and always inquiring, “The Year of Magical Thinking” is a time of self-definition and discovery.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.