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“The Year of Magical Thinking” Tugs at the Heartstrings

Ellen McLaughlin gives a luminous performance in "The Year of Magical Thinking"

New York actress Ellen McLaughlin gives a luminous performance in "The Year of Magical Thinking"

Get out your handkerchiefs. PlayMakers Repertory Company is concluding its warmly applauded 2010-11 season with a stirring production of The Year of Magical Thinking, New Journalism trailblazer Joan Didion’s wrenching memoir of her bottomless grief at the sudden loss of her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne (1932-2003), to a heart attack on Dec. 30, 2003, followed all-too-closely by the death of their daughter, photographer Quintana Roo Dunne Michael (1966-2005), from pancreatitis on Aug. 26 2005.

The Year of Magical Thinking tells a tragic story that would make stones weep, and New York actress Ellen McLaughlin gives a luminous, moist-eyed performance as Joan Didion as she works her way through the five stages of grief, according to the Kübler-Ross model: (1) Denial and Isolation, (2) Anger, (3) Bargaining, (4) Depression, and (5) Acceptance.

Joan Didion first bared her soul in her 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, and then expanded that cri de coeur into a poignant play in 2007. A control freak who must always have the last word, Didion is unsparing in this warts-and-all self-portrait; and McLaughlin gives eloquent voice to Didion’s musings on life and death as the emotional tide ebbs and flows for the bicoastal novelist who mourns the death of her husband and daughter in New York City and in her native California.

New York director Mark DeChiazza keeps a firm hand on the tiller as he helps Ellen McLaughlin navigate the emotional straits in this heartbreaking tale of loss. Didion fearlessly makes her most private moments public in The Year of Magical Thinking — the anguish, anger, and ultimately acceptance that she felt during a year in which one part of her believed that wishing it so — through some kind of magical thinking — could restore her husband to the land of the living.

Seeing McLaughlin play Didion at neaptide — her lowest emotional ebb — is heart-rending. But it makes for powerful drama, and provides a fitting conclusion for a PlayMakers Rep season that included so truly magical theatrical productions. Bravo!

SECOND OPINION: April 26, 2011 Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Kate Dobbs Ariail (who awarded the show 4 of 5 stars):; April 26, 2011 Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview of Mark DeChiazza, Ellen McLaughlin, and Peter Perault by Alex Granados and Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”:; April 26, 2011 Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel preview by Katherine Proctor:; March 4, 2007 New York Times preview by Joan Didion:; Joan Didion discusses The Year of Magical Thinking with Terry Gross on the Oct. 13, 2005 edition of “Fresh Air”: (National Public Radio). (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the April 22nd Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING at 7:30 p.m. April 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

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/843-2311,, or





NOTE 1: PlayMakers Repertory Company 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.

NOTE 2: Saturday evening, after the April 30th performance, Chapel Hill psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Peter Perault will discuss grief and mourning. Perault coordinates PlayMakers‘ “Mindplay” series and is president-elect of the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society (


The Play: (Random House, Inc.) and (Internet Broadway Database).

The Script: (Google Books).

The Memoir: (Random House, Inc.) and (Wikipedia).

Joan Didion: (fan site), (Wikipedia), (Internet Broadway Database), and (Internet Movie Database).

Ellen McLaughlin: (Wikipedia), (Internet Broadway Database), and (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 review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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