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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Oct. 20, 2014

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Sarah Day stars in Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking."
Sarah Day stars in Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking." (Photo: Zane Williams)

APT's "The Year of Magical Thinking" is no trick but the genuine article

There is no sound to the crushing of a heart, and although you may see it happening to somebody, it is an event full of silence.

And it is in that fullsome silence that the true measure of grief shows its depth and sorrow. And it is the silences that mark "The Year of Magical Thinking," the Joan Didion play – based on the novel of the same name – that opened this weekend at American Players Theatre.

It’s a one woman play with veteran Sarah Day as Didion, a woman and an actor who takes us places very few have ever been.

Many actors know how to say their lines and to move on stage and to connect with an audience. But only the rarest of actors use silence on stage to develop a character who touches our hearts.

That’s what Day does in this play. Long silences, with the pounding of a heart and the rhythmn of breath, fill the audience. Day waits and waits and waits some more. She and director Brenda DeVita know that it is in those incredible moments of silence that the true story of what happened to Didion is being told.

Didion, a writer of some power, saw her husband die suddenly and then her married daughter spend months fighting an omnipresent neurological disease, only to die several years later.

The book upon which the play is based covers the time following the death of her husband, a time when magical thinking was the coin of her realm.

She believed – truly – that her husband was coming home and that was the thing that allowed her the hopes for her daughter. They would be a family again, again! Death was a problematic thing to get her arms around.

"Did it happen to him," she asked. "Did it happen to me?"

It was that question that led to the magical thinking, refusing to throw out his shoes because "when he comes back, he is going to need his shoes." That mystical determination was her shield against all those questions, all that doubt.

There is a temptation to call this a play, but in reality, it is more of a conversation between Day and the audience. It’s like sitting at the feet of a person wiser than us, made wiser by sorrow, hope and the full embrace of both life and death.

There is no melodrama here. We know that the control of Didion was the start of her magical thinking. Day plays it so straight we wonder, after awhile, if she will ever shed a tear. She does, with a voice choking with the effort to hold the tears back.

Day is onstage when the doors open to the theater, reading, occasionally nodding to people who come in. For the next 90 minutes, she is in her home, and she invites us in, not for tea but for a lesson.

There is nothing pedantic about this lesson. It is told with passion and with love and with absolute disgust over what has happend to her. And it is a journey that left a Saturday afternoon audince shaken.

The magical thinking is something we all have and all use, sooner or later. We all find that "grief has its place but it also has its limits."

The magic of grieving may always come to an end and prove to have been an illusion, but there are no illusions about this production. It is magic, from start to finish.

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