'Year of Magical Thinking' - a story of love, loss and grief

  • Written by Deborah Stone

"Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."

Without warning, Joan Didion’s life changed forever. On Dec. 30, 2003, the famed essayist and novelist was preparing dinner for her husband of nearly 40 years, the writer John Gregory Dunne, when he suddenly collapsed on the floor of their New York City apartment. Dunne suffered a massive heart attack and died later that evening, just hours after he and Didion had gone to the hospital to visit their comatose daughter Quintana Roo.

After his death, Didion turned to poetry as she wrote her memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," her poignant story of love, loss and the power of grief to unbalance the mind.

The book earned the 2005 National Book Award and was subsequently made into a Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave.

The play is now getting its Seattle debut at Intiman Theatre under the eloquent direction of Sarna Lapine and featuring veteran actress Judith Roberts. Roberts brilliantly conveys Didion’s unflinching journey into intimacy and grief and the insights she gleaned from this emotional passage.

She chronicles her process of mourning and the bouts of insanity or "magical thinking," she experiences as a result of her inability to accept her husband’s death: "I wasn’t prepared to accept the news as final. Whatever happened was open to revision."

This was, in her words, a case of "reversible error." If you can find the right error, the verdict gets thrown out. Didion imagined that if she performed certain actions and followed specific rituals, John would come back to her, alive. She kept his shoes, for example, reasoning that he would need them if he were to return. Sliding through the past and present –from hospitals and funeral arrangements to memories of happy family times and her unique marriage – Roberts brings Didion’s wide range of moods to life. She seizes on the sunny remembrances to counter the fury, confusion and despair she experiences, as a result of John’s death and Quintana’s life-threatening battle with septic shock, a battle she would lose less than two years later.

Interspersed among these emotions are feelings of guilt, unrealistic hopes and a pervasive numbness that threatens to sink her deeper into her dark fog. But, there are also some humorous moments created through Didion’s marvelous use of wit and iron, specifically when she attempts to "manage the situation."

At the hospital, she is assigned a social worker and not a doctor to speak to about her husband’s condition. "If they give you a social worker, you’re in trouble," she warns.

The social worker is the one who tells her the inevitable news of her husband’s death.

Roberts is a gifted actress who knows how to hold an audience’s attention for 90 uninterrupted minutes. She has a magnetic pull and grips you from the start with her harrowing story and her ability to bring the music of Didion’s words into motion. But, it’s also how she handles the moments of silence when she is digesting what she has said that show the true depth of her talent. The author goes crazy with grief as she struggles to cope with mortality, but eventually she comes to the realization that death is a part of an ever-changing world and she emerges from her fog to rejoin the living.

"I had to go with the change," Didion concludes. "That’s what he (John) told me."


"The Year of Magical Thinking" runs through Sept. 20 at Intiman Theatre. For ticket information: (206) 269-1900 or

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