Ellen McLaughlin Stars in Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” at PlayMakers Repertory Company

Ellen McLaughlin plays grieving California writer Joan Didion in "The Year of Magical Thinking"
Ellen McLaughlin plays grieving California writer Joan Didion in "The Year of Magical Thinking"

"The Year of Magical Thinking" runs April 27-May 1 at PlayMakers Rep
"The Year of Magical Thinking" runs April 27-May 1 at PlayMakers Rep

On April 27-May 1, as part of its eyebrow-raising PRC2 second-stage series, PlayMakers Repertory Company present will present The Year of Magical Thinking, 76-year-old California novelist Joan Didion’s 2007 stage adaptation of her 2005 National Book Award-winning memoir about the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne in 2003 and the hospitalization of their daughter Quintana Roo Dunne Michael that same year for pneumonia with septic shock. (Quintana Michael died from pancreatitis in August 2005, before the publication of The Year of Magical Thinking, which was also a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.)

Ellen McLaughlin, a 53-year-old Broadway actress born in Cambridge, MA and probably most famous for creating the role of the Angel in the original 1993 Broadway productions of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Angels in America: Perestroika, will perform this gripping one-woman show, under the direction of Mark DeChiazza, in the 265-seat Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. And Chapel Hill psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Peter Perault, who coordinates PlayMakers‘ “Mindplay” series and is president-elect of the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society (http://www.ncpsasoc.org/), will host lively talkback sessions after each performance, with a panel that includes members of the cast and crew and local experts on issues that the play raises.

Ellen McLaughlin plays grieving California writer Joan Didion in "The Year of Magical Thinking"
Ellen McLaughlin plays grieving California writer Joan Didion in the stage version of Didion's memoir "The Year of Magical Thinking"

“I heard about the memoir first — it received so much attention,” recalls director Mark DeChiazza, who works in music, theater, and motion pictures, often with world-famous collaborators such as composer Phillip Glass, singer/songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, and dancer and choreographer Susan Marshall.

The Year of Magical Thinking made its Broadway debut, directed by David Hare and starring Vanessa Redgrave as Joan Didion, on March 29, 2007 at the Booth Theatre, where it played for 144 performances before closing on Aug. 25, 2007. Redgrave was nominated for the 2007 Tony Award® for Best Actress in a Play, and she won the 2007 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance.

PlayMakers Rep guest director Mark DeChiazza remembers, “I had read other Didion [books] — various nonfiction — and read about The Year of Magical Thinking, but had not read the book itself. Perhaps, at the time, the daunting subject matter deterred me, although I don’t really remember. I also did not see the 2007 Broadway production with Vanessa Redgrave.

“In retrospect,” DeChiazza explains, “I feel lucky that I was able to choose how I got to know the play — to meet the play unburdened by recollections of how it had been staged before, and to not have the memoir on my mind.

“Of course, I subsequently moved into the study of the memoir, which is extremely useful in understanding the play, but they are importantly different from each other,” DeChiazza points out. “The play is not simply an abridgement of the book; it diverges significantly in both content and context.

“For example,” DeChiazza says, “Didion’s daughter Quintana was still alive when Didion finished the memoir, but the circumstances of her death are related in the play.”

He adds, “[Quintana’s] death changes the arc of the narrative, and the shadow it casts even colors the meaning of some of the passages that match the memoir verbatim). While the memoir reads like reporting — a dispatch from the very strange world [that Joan Didion] was plunged into when her husband died — the play moves a lot of anecdotes into a present tense that non-sequentially shifts its location in time throughout the play, although she continually ‘steps out’ of these experiences to narrate and contextualize them from an ‘objective’ distance.

“There is a dramatic tension established between reporting and experiencing,” notes DeChiazza. “The protagonist of this play prizes control, but is pitted against things that are by definition impossible to control; and so we watch her resist being swept by her experience — watch her struggle to make sense of it and shape it into a narrative she can share with the audience.”

DeChiazza says, “That is another interesting difference between the play and the book: in the book, we have only the author’s words; and we will certainly infer things about her from what she says. But in the play, we also regard her. She is embodied. She exists now outside her words, and so her nature, her essence, and her character, become subject in a way that they cannot be the memoir.”

When the curtain rises on The Year of Magical Thinking, says director Mark DeChiazza, “The speaker, Joan Didion (played by Ellen McLaughlin), brings us into her experience of bereavement in the year after her husband dies unexpectedly of a heart attack. During this period, her daughter Quintana is hospitalized for pneumonia, which becomes life-threatening septic shock, leading to a chain of further complications and ultimately to her death.

“Didion, who has always seen herself as a ‘cool customer’ — accustomed to experiencing herself as rational and in control — discovers, in grief, that everything she has ever assumed true about herself, including her own sanity, is called into question,” claims DeChiazza. “She reports to the audience from this strange and altered world, attempting to stand against powerful currents of memory, delusion, and sorrow that can easily carry her away.”

In addition to actress Ellen McLaughlin and director Mark DeChiazza, the PlayMakers Repertory Company creative team for The Year of Magical Thinking includes PRC producing artistic director Joseph Haj, production manager Michael Rolleri, scenic designer Peter Ksander, lighting designer Jesse Belsky, costume designer Rachel E. Pollock, sound designer/engineer Ryan Gastelum, dramaturg Ashley Lucas, and stage manager Sarah Smiley.

Director Mark DeChiazza notes, “The play as written contains no set description and no stage directions. The only reference it makes to the space is when the narrator says, ‘You see me on this stage’. What we are traversing is not a physical terrain, but a mental one. Further, whatever space Didion speaks of is not a space that she belongs in. She refers, in the play, to crossing the rivers of death; in her passage across the water, she exists neither fully in the world of the living nor in that of the dead — neither in the present nor in the past. She inhabits a space between — a purgatory — a space that speaks of absence and erasure — of what is not rather than of what is.”

DeChiazza reports, “Our set designer Peter Ksander has designed a space that is a blank container, but implies a living world beyond its blind confines. Within this space are three simple chairs and one simple table, holding books and papers — the facts, literature, documentation, and research that have always been the source of her strength, but now prove insufficient defense against loss and mortality. There is nowhere in this environment that the narrator naturally belongs — no home for her; she is the sole living thing in a hard and inanimate environment.”

He adds, “Light can write upon and transform the cold, clean architecture of our set. Jesse Belsky, our lighting designer, is creating ways that the light can give the physical space the volatility of an internal or mental landscape, and can help lead us through the story. Apertures that with the aid of light can change from blind coffers in blank walls to open windows illuminated from the outside, penetrate the walls of the set.”

DeChiazza says, “[Joan] Didion, in a New York Times article she wrote during the period when the Broadway production of [The Year of Magical Thinking] was in rehearsal, explained that she did not see the character on stage as herself, but as ‘the speaker, who for the sake of clarity is called Joan Didion.’ She recognized that different actors would enter and embody this character differently, and moreover that this variation was desirable and important. She had separated herself from the play’s protagonist and felt herself now as a watcher — a member of the audience.

“Ellen [McLaughlin] is not physically similar to [Joan Didion], nor do we want her to be,” reveals Mark DeChiazza. “We are not attempting to impersonate, rather [we are trying] to identify and understand. Ellen is playing her own Joan Didion — a character she finds inside herself and the text. Rachel Pollock has designed a costume that portrays Joan Didion’s identity, personality, and point of view as they would refract through Ellen.”

Director Mark DeChiazza declares, “[The Year of Magical Thinking] is an incredible piece of writing. It is a deceptively simple set-up: one performer alone on a stage talking; however, this is anything but a conventional piece for the theater. The way it moves to create meaning is unique — powerful and yet also quite intricate and delicate.

“[Playwright Joan] Didion has likened its structure to that of a piece of music — related movements that vary and develop recurring themes. The structure, which obsessively revolves around certain central images, Didion says, mirrors the way she observed her own mind functioning in grief. She keeps returning to certain central images and thoughts, but the vantage point from which she views them is always changing,” says DeChiazza.

DeChiazza admits, “Discovering and illuminating the journey Didion charted has been an adventure. The play deals with issues of life and death and loss that are enormously important to all of us, but rarely examined. We are afraid, and so we mostly try not to examine these issues.

“In the theater,” he adds, “we are able to engage with stories that grapple with experience — even quite difficult experience. This play boldly confronts the terrifying and the incomprehensible, but we still feel — as the narrator puts it — that she’s telling us ‘what (we) need to know.'”

What made him want to direct “[The Year of Magical Thinking? DeChiazza responds, “… [M]y two-word answer would be ‘Ellen McLaughlin.’ As I said, it is a wonderful play. It is also a devilishly difficult one. It simply could not be done by anyone but a top-notch, enormously skilled, brave, and creative actor like Ellen [McLaughlin].

“Ellen asked me to direct her in “[The Year of Magical Thinking], and I would be lying if I told you I would have refused an offer to direct her in any project she thought worthy,” confesses DeChiazza. “This play is — in so many ways — a feat for the actor[. T]he marathon memorization of over one-and-a-half hours of text is only the beginning — that alone is virtuosic — because telling this story requires so much more: control, agility, subtlety, and a bone-deep understanding of the material.

“My job is to help her shape and channel her performance — to help her construct an orienting and supportive frame for what needs to be an extremely personal journey,” explains stage, film, and music director Mark DeChiazza. “[My job is t]o help discover the most lucid and evocative path she can lead us on, and then harness the other parts of the production to support her performance.”

NOTE 1: The Year of Magical Thinking is the third and last play in PlayMakers‘ 2010-11 PRC2 second-stage series, which also included Samuel Beckett’s classic existential drama Happy Days (Sept. 8-12, 2010), directed by Rob Melrose and starring PRC mainstays Julie Fishell and Ray Dooley, and Exit Cuckoo (nanny in motherland) (Jan. 12-16, 2011), written and performed by Lisa Ramirez and directed by Colman Domingo.

NOTE 2: The Year of Magical Thinking star Ellen McLaughlin is also a playwright. She will return to Chapel Hill for PlayMakers Rep’s 2011-12 PRC2 second-stage series, when she will perform her play Penelope, with music by Sarah Kirkland Snider, on April 25-29, 2012.

SECOND OPINION: Joan Didion discusses The Year of Magical Thinking with Terry Gross on the Oct. 13, 2005 edition of “Fresh Air”: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4956088 (National Public Radio).

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING at 7:30 p.m. April 27-30 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. May 1 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $10-$35.

BOX OFFICE: 919/962-PLAY or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/843-2311, gerdts@email.unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.aspx.

SHOW: http://www.playmakersrep.org/performances/event.aspx?id=d30bd579-d6b8-4bf0-83ed-c3e179288569.

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/.

VENUE: http://www.playmakersrep.org/aboutus/kenan.aspx.

PARKING/DIRECTIONS: http://www.playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo/.

NOTE: Chapel Hill psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Peter Perault, who coordinates PlayMakers‘ “Mindplay” series and is president-elect of the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society (http://www.ncpsasoc.org/), will host lively talkback sessions after each performance, with a panel that includes members of the cast and crew and local experts on issues that the play raises.


The Play: http://www.randomhouse.com/book/40772/the-year-of-magical-thinking-the-play-by-joan-didion (Random House, Inc.) and http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?ID=448760 (Internet Broadway Database).

The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

The Memoir: http://www.randomhouse.com/book/40771/the-year-of-magical-thinking-by-joan-didion/9781400043149/ (Random House, Inc.) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Year_of_Magical_Thinking (Wikipedia).

Joan Didion: http://joan-didion.info/ (fan site), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Didion (Wikipedia), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=448762 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0225820/ (Internet Movie Database).

Ellen McLaughlin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_McLaughlin (Wikipedia), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=72491 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0572314/ (Internet Movie Database).


Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.

To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.

By Robert W. McDowell

Robert W. McDowell is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer, editor, and critic. He has written theater, film, book, and music previews and reviews for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, and Classical Voice of North Carolina, all based in Raleigh. In 1980-91, he covered business, industry, government, and education for (We the People of) North Carolina magazine, published monthly by N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. In April 2001, McDowell started Robert's Reviews, a FREE weekly e-mail newsletter that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the performing arts in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Triangle Review is the latest-and-greatest version of McDowell's original newsletter. (To start your FREE subscription, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) From December 1980 until September 2017, McDowell served on the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., a Raleigh-based nonprofit film society formed in 1966. He currently publishes a weekly list of FREE advance screenings of movies in the Triangle area. (To have your e-mail address added to this FREE list, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.) McDowell also co-edited and supervised the production of Jim Valvano's Guide to Great Eating (JTV Enterprises, 1984), a 224-page sports celebrity cookbook; and he served as a fact checker for Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead (Pocket Books, 1991).