Strong debuts for The Year of Magical Thinking and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
“This happened on December 30, 2003. That may seem like a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you.” So begins Joan Didion’s one-woman play, The Year of Magical Thinking, adapted from her National Book Award-winning memoir of the same name.
Dates are important to Didion because they serve as markers at a time when her life broke loose from its moorings. Days after her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, was induced into a coma after contracting pneumonia, her husband of 40 years, writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack on Dec. 30, 2004. (They had been married at Mission San Juan Bautista and honeymooned in Pebble Beach.) Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking exactly one year to the day of Dunne’s death. Eight months after that, on Aug. 26, 2005, Quintana died of hematoma.
Magical Thinking is not a depressing work. It moves with intellectual curiosity over the ordeal, keeping a writerly distance, as if Didion is empirically, curiously but sympathetically, examining someone else navigate through grief.
Actress Carol Daly turns in an impressive, sustained, one-woman performance that explores the nuances of Didion’s experience, while injecting vitality into the words, animating them with her expressive face and hands like an orchestration. Didion rarely gets sentimental, and Daly follows suit.
“[John] doesn’t look like he has to be dead,” says Daly, viewing her husband’s imaginary body. She observes that she didn’t want to throw out John’s shoes because it would present further evidence that he was dead – for a year Didion would not let herself believe that he was. That was the “magical thinking.”
Director Conrad Selvig chops up the narrative into pieces that, structurally, recreate the pages and chapters of the book. Didion’s prose power is unhampered by the nearness of her own grief; she’s just focused it onto that grief, cycling between narration and reflection. After she describes accompanying her daughter to the hospital with all the acuity she can gather from her fractured memory, she writes that she was greeted by a social worker. “When they send you a social worker,” Daly says, like an aside, “you know you’re in trouble.”
Finally, Didion arrives at the first semblance of healing. And even that she’s ambivalent about. It means her new life – without her two loves – has arrived and is settling in. This play, shrouded in death, is about life.
• • •
Harper Lee’s influential, Pulitzer Prize-winning and semi-autobiographical novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, turns 50 this year; and its storytelling strength, its fundamental principals and its warm sentiment, haven’t aged a bit.
The perennial coming-of-age tale has sat in the hands of millions of young students, but like an old friend, it deserves revisiting. Set in Maycomb, Ala., in 1935, it tells the story of a town whose morality and racial tolerance is tested.
Western Stage’s production of Christopher Sergel’s adaptation boasts a big cast lead by a disarmingly charming Morgan Melendez as Scout, a solid David Parker as her righteous lawyer father Atticus Finch, Thomas Perry as brother Jem, and Andrew Liddle as their friend Dill, based on Lee’s childhood (and lifelong) friend Truman Capote.
Mockingbird has teeth. Early on, little Scout is derided by another boy: “Scout, why does your daddy defend niggers?” It’s the first reminder that this isn’t all just halcyon nostalgia. It has purpose.
Atticus has been appointed to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Greg Sims), against the charge of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell (Karolina Hepper), in a trial that has dangerously agitated certain townspeople. Some of the men, ginned up and faces concealed, want their own brand of justice and go to the jail to mete it out on Tom. But they’re disarmed – not by Atticus’ plea to reason, but by little Scout, in one of the play’s most poignant scenes of humility and humanity. Melendez, usually pitched like the loud little girl who demands to be heard, quietly shines here.
“He was part of a mob,” Atticus tells his daughter afterwards. “But you made him remember that he’s also a man.”
When the trial arrives in the second act, the kids take a backseat (in the segregated black section) to the old-fashioned courtroom drama. Here, Sims and Hepper create heat from their feverish opposing performances.
This is a warm production, well-lit, and full of the novel’s Southern charm and mannerisms, though the book earned censorship for its unapologetic language. This production, similarly, doesn’t get polite. Good for them.