Review: The Year of Magical Thinking

The Indiana Repertory Theatre’s Going Solo Festival continues. I had the honor of attending the IRT’s second festival style offering, The Year of Magical Thinking, last Saturday evening in Indianapolis downtown. Though parking was a pain due to multiple events downtown (motocross at Lucas Oil Stadium and an IHSAA wrestling tournament, among other things) wading through the hoards of Hoosiers in their capitol city was well worth it to connect with this illuminating piece of Indianapolis theatre. After we finally found an open (and reasonably priced) parking garage at the Indiana State Museum near the Indianapolis Canal Walk, we made the brief trek to the marquee of the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

Walking into this Indianapolis art event, I had mixed expectations. After seeing Pretty Fire last weekend in this Indianapolis festival, the bar was set extremely high. On top of that, Joan Didion’s novel and script, which share a title, contain notably depressing material about her life following the death of her husband and the long illness and ultimate passing of her daughter. Didion’s novel The Year of Magical Thinking, published in 2005, details her experience grieving the death of her husband. After the book was received with extraordinary critical acclaim, including a Pulitzer Prize for Biography/ Autobiography and the National Book Award, Didion was coaxed into adapting the script for the stage (for a Broadway stage to be exact).

An interesting tidbit for those out there who read and loved Didion’s original memoir, Didion’s daughter actually passed away prior to the publishing of the memoir; Didion elected not to rewrite her finished manuscript. When asked to adapt the novel into a play, it was as if she was given another shot to write her pain. The story of the medical challenges her daughter faced, and Didion’s own growing distrust of the medical community, have a major role in the play, dominating the second act arch.

However, the themes of the memoir’s original content remain true and are incorporated into the stage version. Didion’s new text still examines ideas of loss, grief, change and the irrationality that accompany mourning, each of which is compounded by the double tragedy experienced by Didion herself. But as she says in the first lines of the script, “It will happen to you,” creating a kind of cautionary tale for those who have yet to experience grief and a tale of solace and understanding for those who have.

As the writer shares intimate details of her daughter’s life and illness, her husband’s death, their picturesque time together as a family, and the success in her and her husband’s shared career as screenwriters that created a lavish lifestyle for the trio, Didion creates a unique experience for audiences. Save all her beach homes, fast cars, expensive vacations and famous friends, Didion makes the clear point that money certainly does not mean happiness, particularly when faced with extremely tragic events.

The design team for The Year of Magical Thinking is the same for each Going Solo piece. On stage last Saturday, we saw the vibrant set Robert Koharchik created for the joyful show Pretty Fire transformed into a cold, pristine, isolated playing space for a character consumed by grief. Through simple changes like the color of background columns, the placement of a reflective window pane and additions/ subtractions of just the right props and set pieces, Koharchik created an ice tower for Joan Didion’s words to echo in. His twin brother’s lights  thoughtfully created an entirely different environment as well. Ryan Koharchik creates a space characterized by cool dark lighting and vortexes (done cleverly with lights and sound). The most impressive thing: its the exact same light plot for each play in the festival.

Fontaine Syer nimbly picked up the role of Joan Didion for two hours, as she led the audience on an amazing journey of “magical thinking,” irrationality and grief. As a professor of theatre and drama at Indiana University in Bloomington, Syer shows incredible talent in her return to the stage. The piece is challenging for an actor for many reasons, but Fontaine Syer surmounted every obstacle to give a crystal clear and incredibly clean performance, one that I’m sure Ms. Didion herself would approve of. The role demands an incredible range of emotion, shaded with deep layers of tricks and misdirection, what director Priscilla Lindsay calls “smoke and mirrors.” Lindsay says it best when she explains in her program notes that “There is no such thing as rationality in this woman’s world.”

Syer creates a character that is almost immediately recognizable as a celebrated writer. With a clear handle on Didion’s precise word choice and measured nature, Syer is instantly believable as the character. But that is just the first challenge. In addition to taking on a believable persona of Joan, Syer also creates the illusion of Joan, the version of Joan which is hidden behind during extreme moments of shock and grief. On top of that Syer, captures every iota of emotional range experienced by a character immersed in a world of illusion, confusion, denial and sorrow. Syer masterfully brings Joan Didion’s voice to life through her own, with the ability to channel inner regions of emotion of which most of us are totally unaware.

In addition to all of this, Syer works hard (but not noticeably hard) to create a meaningful relationship with her audience. As she shares Joan’s woeful story, she is never judgemental of the character’s madness, though she acknowledges head on that we may be. She draws the audience in by tasting every word and every image in her massive monologue, and we find ourselves hungering to hear a sign (even a tiny one) that she is okay. She doesn’t give it to us. In a brilliant move, Syer never fully lands any of the jokes in Didion’s script. Joan is not trying to be funny and neither is Syer, yet the audience laughs willingly, eager for even a moments break from such a heavy subject matter.

This, no doubt, was an agreed upon and intelligent move by both actor and director. The effect payed off. Priscilla Lindsay (last seen at the IRT in the spectacular Love Letters) strutted her stuff as director in this one actor play. Her work with Syer in creating interesting staging kept this heavy show moving along at a swift pace, a real challenge in a difficult and depressing piece like this. I was especially taken with the use of turning Syer’s back to the audience. Lindsay made good use of the Koharchiks’ set and lights throughout. This was particularly notable as Syer turned her back to the audience, forcing us to catch her facial expressions in the above mentioned reflective window pane. This effect gave Syer a chance to experience extremely intimate and personal moments, while at the same time playing to an audience in three quarter round in a unique way.

The collision of talent between writer, director and actor in the IRT’s production of The Year of Magical Thinking is phenomenal. But be warned, this production is not an easy one to sit through, particularly if you have experienced grief. At intermission, I struck up a conversation with one patron that admitted their plans to leave before Act Two began. His reasons were personal and reasonable, relating to loss in his own life and his unwillingness to relive it on a Saturday night. But as Lindsay says in her notes, “If you are willing to dive down to the bottom with her [Joan], to discover a whole new set of rules that apply only in situations of the most dire, world-without-end happenings, you will test your own strength. You will learn what it is to be ambushed by sorrow.”

For additional information about this Indianapolis performing arts event at the IRT, visit their official website.

Heading to Indy downtown for The Year of Magical Thinking or other Going Solo Festival selections? Head to any of these great Indianapolis restaurants or Indianapolis bars for more fun in the Circle City. Make a day out of seeing and supporting Indianapolis theatre at the Going Solo Festival at the IRT. Be part of this fantastic new Indianapolis event. Stay tuned to Indianapolis News, Events and Information on Fun City for all the latest on fun things to do in Indianapolis.

The Year of Magical Thinking
Now through March 7, 2010

Indiana Repertory Theatre
140 W Washington St
Indianapolis, IN 46204

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