Vanessa Redgrave
in The Year of Magical Thinking
(© Brigitte Lacombe)
Vanessa Redgrave
in The Year of Magical Thinking
(© Brigitte Lacombe)
In the Brigitte Lacombe photograph of author Joan Didion and actress Vanessa Redgrave that graces the program for The Year of Magical Thinking, similarities between the women are evident -- most notably, rectangular faces marked by high cheekbones. But their physical differences are also apparent. Didion is so slight that she looks as if a light wind could blow her away, while the much taller Redgrave gives the impression that even in a heavy gale the most she would do is bend.

Yet by the time this 90-minute adaptation of Didion's recent best-seller is over, Redgrave has beautifully and achingly delivered this doleful and often amusing prose-poem about the nature of grief.

Indeed, whenever she has been called upon to convey the effects of severe assaults on the spirit, Redgrave has proved more adept than any other living actress. She's revealed a core of vulnerability in works as diverse as the films Howard's End and the more recent Venus, as well as on Broadway in the 2003 revival of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night for which she won a Tony Award.

Undoubtedly to be Tony-nominated once more, Redgrave again exposes frayed, baffled emotions while portraying Didion -- who must confront her unaccepting self in the months and years following the untimely deaths of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne on December 23, 2003 from a heart attack, and their daughter Quintana Roo, on August 25, 2005 from complications from septic shock.

However, Didion has refrained simply from transferring her memoir from the page to the stage. Forever examining her own mental state, she's introduced new information and new grief into the script; for example, Didion talks compulsively of her acknowledged irrational hopes for the resurrection of both her husband and daughter.

Redgrave is not yet a paragon of Didionesque perfection. In the few moments when she is asked to forfeit control of her carefully modulated speaking, she loses a grip on conviction. For instance, there's the moment when Didion is damning herself for not saying something she now thinks magically might have blocked the inevitable.

The mundane words Didion remembers she spoke are "What shall we do for dinner?" Redgrave shouts them in anger, but the anguished question seems less a cry from the heart than a response to a possible request from director David Hare -- who otherwise guides the proceedings with a sympathetic, invisible hand -- for some decibel variety. And there's at least one other outburst in the same vein.

It's in the quietest moments where Redgrave's high-wattage inner lights blaze, illuminating Didion's dimmed inner light. Using a mid-Atlantic accent, Redgrave downplays the high-tragedy demeanor that Didion sometimes exhibits in public. Moreover, anyone who cherishes Redgrave's abilities in other transcendent acting sequences will recognize the bruised wonder that comes into her eyes and the identifiable loss of assurance in her limbs.

Passages prompting these kinds of reactions occur throughout the monologue, with many of them in the final minutes. Only three lines from that extended coda will be quoted here. Trying valiantly but still futilely to recover from grieving for her husband and daughter, Didion says, "Let them become the photograph on the table. Let them become the name on the trust accounts. Let go of them in the water."

The subject of water often crops up in the text, in part, because the Dunnes lived for a while in Malibu. Accordingly, Bob Crowley's set consists of one wooden terrace chair and a series of stunning upstage scrims that drop occasionally to the floor as if marking chapter endings. These impressionistic paintings -- looking as if they could have been done by J. M. W. Turner in collaboration with Anselm Kiefer -- suggest ocean and sky during a slowly changing overcast day Furthermore, Ann Roth's single, simple outfit for Redgrave coordinates perfectly with them.

Although Year of Magical Thinking is billed as "a play by Joan Didion," it's only a play in the broadest sense. It is, however, a not-to-be-missed elegy on inexplicable, unavoidable loss.