Barbra Berlovitz finds the cool method of a woman investigating her own grief, in Joan Didion's memoir.
A spouse dropping dead at the dining room table; a daughter confined to intensive care. These are the things that send normally rational people into fits of grief or anguished howling at the moon. Author Joan Didion might have descended into that maelstrom in her private moments, but the written testament of her experience shows a woman in cool and methodical repose. She asks not why these things occur, but how.
In 2003, Didion's husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly in their New York apartment. At the time their daughter, Quintana, was in a hospital with septic shock. She would recover, but subsequent medical incidents resulted in her death in 2005. Didion wrote the memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," in the year after her husband's death. The stage adaptation expands to include her daughter's demise. Barbra Berlovitz is performing the solo work for Nimbus Theatre in Minneapolis.
Didion took the title from the ancient idea that one's actions can reverse an event. For example, she holds onto her husband's shoes because she has convinced herself that he'll need them if he returns. That Didion is able to analyze her behavior -- as an anthropologist might poke through the pottery of an ancient tribe -- describes her reliance on method. She pursues fact, locks down moments by recovering specific details of when, where and who. She resists self-pity and follows the dictum that work is therapy.
Berlovitz finds the sense of balance in Didion's logic. Her phrasing has the precision of poetry; emotion -- when there is any -- comes in silent pauses. Berlovitz creates a Didion who seems initially thrown off her game by this shock, but recovers through detached reportage. Her husband "does not look like he needs to be dead," she says in the kind of sharp insight that anyone who has seen a dead body understands. She considers the time zones when calling friends on the West Coast. It's three hours earlier there, does that mean her husband hasn't died yet? She's almost a bit smug in her confidence, in her sense of control. She will not let this intrusion destroy her homeostasis.
Didion then recounts her struggle with her daughter's ailments, allowing herself to swim in the currents of memory -- dangerous business, she says, because unseen whirlpools below the calm surface can suddenly pull one into paroxysms of grief. She finds safety in routine, chronology and in the childlike reasoning of magic: If she can get her daughter out of the hospital, she will be OK.
This steely, slightly mad resolve crumbles, however. Berlovitz shows us Didion's resignation when she realizes she cannot "will" her daughter to be safe. "Life changes in an instant; an ordinary instant."
Berlovitz loses some of her rigor in the latter half of Nimbus' production, directed by Liz Neerland. Her eloquence is not quite as sure, but this could be an opening-night observation.
"The Year of Magical Thinking" will not satisfy those looking for raw, emotional grief. Didion is not a robot. Her feeling is as deep as any person's but her reaction is a spare, intriguing look at the intellect's endeavor to right itself after catastrophe.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299