Unfurling the raw emotions associated with sickness, death and grief are not new topics in literature. But author Joan Didion has suffered immense loss and tragedy in losing her husband and daughter, and uses this as the narrative of her book turned one woman play THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. In Didion’s own words her emotions may not seem raw, but they are truly rich with a deep sense of introspection and self awareness. And during the time of Covid, where live theatre is still on hold, Buffalo’s Irish Classical Theatre is presenting it’s magical second virtual performance with Didion’s gripping play.
Our writer, wife and mother shares the heartbreaking story of dealing with the sudden death of her husband John at the same time that her only child Quintana is battling septic shock on a respirator in a New York City ICU. This woman’s complex mind mixes her innate brilliance and scholarly thinking with the introspective thoughts on how to grieve. Didion is a wordsmith who chooses her words carefully, and who examines the words of others with that same inquisitive nature. She must portray the part of a practical woman making funeral plans and also be a steward of her daughter’s medical plights. Didion explores these issues through flashbacks of her younger days at Berkeley, raising a child in California and her own marriage struggles. The five stages of grief described by Kubler-Ross can’t hold a candle to Didion’s own journey. Her self proclaimed “vortex” is a mental state that she avoids as much as possible, be it triggered by streets she drives down or which articles of her husband’s clothing she can dispose of.
Victoria Perez has been tapped to bring Didion’s story to life. The demanding role not only runs the gamut of emotions but can be a virtual tongue twister for any actress, given the author’s penchant for highly descriptive verbosity, that can border on pomposity. Nevertheless, Ms. Perez, the Artistic Director of Buffalo’s Raices Theatre Company, is up to the challenge. One is instantly sucked into the story by Perez’s intensity and command of the stage, which also includes her command of her relationship with the camera. As raconteur, Perez has the ability to ensure the story being told is coming to life as if it is the first time this woman has expressed these words to anyone. One grasps the difficulties in her marriage by the tone in her voice, as she describes the everyday task of making a cocktail or meal for her husband. There is a familiarity that is palpable in her marriage. And in her husband’s brief time alive in this story, it is clear that he and his wife shared a deep love for their young, newly wed daughter who is is battling for her life.
Perez does fine work as she shifts from the regimented mother who educates herself on all things medical in order to be her daughter and husband’s advocate. No medical term will get in the way of her understanding of their medical conditions. But all of the medical knowledge she acquires still renders her ultimately helpless in her quest to save her beloved daughter. And when her magical thinking overcomes her pragmatic mind, she convinces the audience that while she may seem to be crazy, her magical thoughts can be rationalized in her own head. And ultimately, all she truly wants is to be the mother that can always make everything better for her child.
Director Kyle LoConti has the task of directing a single woman, with a minimum of movements, on a black stage. I imagine she and Ms Perez dug into this venture on a cerebral level where the text supercedes all. When to pause, where to glance, how can one’s eyes tell the story. These minute details never go unnoticed. With some mild rough camera transitions aside, this one woman play felt appropriately intimate on the screen. Perez captivates the viewer with a restrained performance that is heartfelt and genuine. By the time the tears finally come to her eyes at the death of her daughter, her maternal reactions are those of a lifetime of love for her child.