When Joan Didion mounted the stage to receive her National Book Award in 2005, she might as well have been climbing Calgary. Never what you'd call zaftig, Didion was now almost gone. Cheeks sunken, hair wispy, eyes glued to a speck of space about four feet ahead of her knees. She looked done, like a woman in mid-implosion, subject to crushing atmospheric PSI that the coifed lit-hipsters applauding all around her could not perceive. Her acceptance speech was inaudible and incomprehensible.
You couldn't blame her. The book for which she was accepting the award, The Year of Magical Thinking, chronicled the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. He died just after he and Joan returned home from a New York City hospital where they were visiting their only daughter, Quintana Roo, who would die of septic shock shortly before The Year of Magical Thinking went to press.
By the time Joan Didion took the stage again in 2007 to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Foundation, she looked better. She had her vitality back — the old, frightful intelligence that reveals itself in the silences that make up half of her careful speech. She smiled. It was good to see.
The distance from the Joan of 2005 to the Joan of 2007 is long, and in The Year of Magical Thinking, the play, Joan means to tell us how to traverse it. It's a one-woman show and performed at the Women's Theatre Project by Angie Radosh. In it, Joan's proxy addresses the audience directly, telling us of her attempts to reason her loved ones back to life. Mostly, she warns us that there are ugly days ahead. "It will happen to you," she says, meaning death, grief, the disappearance of what matters. "That's what I'm here to tell you."
The face and body of Angie Radosh are about a decade too young to channel Joan's words, which are so redolent of time passed. "Going back has trick currents, unresolved eddies" is what Joan has to say about mulling over the past, and she catalogs the streets in Los Angeles she mustn't travel because of the memories that live there. Recounting scenes from decades long gone, she conjures a world of ghosts, speaking in a voice that seems ground down by millennia.
Radosh captures that voice with pure chops, willing herself into old age and timelessness. She moves around the stage — a softly lit affair, full of pictures of Joan and John and Quintana in the good old days in L.A. — as though it were a museum of lost and fragile things, subject to break with the first indelicate gesture. She speaks about the rituals she enacts to bring back her husband and will her daughter into health with such need that you begin to root for her desperate mysticism. When she says she cannot give away her husband's shoes because, if she does, he won't ever return to her, you believe it. Joan/Angie smartens up faster than the audience. "Leis go brown, tectonic plates shift, deep currents change," she says, making it clear that tragedy is more than a personal affront and that to accept it is to hear the rhythm of the universe.