C. Stanley Photography
C. Stanley Photography

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Joan Didion’s life was turned upside down when her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, collapsed on the living room floor one December night as Didion prepared an ordinary dinner. Didion and Dunne had spent the afternoon visiting their only daughter, Quintana, who was in a coma caused by pneumonia that turned septic. It was Christmastime in New York.

Life changes fast. 

Life changes in the instant. 

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.  

These lines launch Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, a relentlessly detailed account of the 365 days that followed her husband’s death, during which time her daughter vacillated between fair health and near-fatality. (Quintana died less than two years after Dunne). In 2007, the memoir was adapted for the stage with Vanessa Redgrave playing Didion, the glamorous California screenwriter, novelist, and essayist who worked her way up from copywriter at Vogue to feature editor, making a serious name for herself in the new journalism movement of the 1960s. Kathleen Turner has revived the role of Didion at Arena Stage in a performance full of power and grace.  

Didion’s script shimmers with lovely memories of her idyllic bicoastal family life. There are reminiscences of Malibu days spent poolside, Quintana’s long hair streaked white by the sun, John and Joan writing screenplays and books between trips to Paris, Honolulu, and beyond. There’s a ramshackle house in Hollywood with avocado trees, writing assignments that span presidential primaries and conflicts abroad, and flights taken between Northern and Southern California for dinner dates. But every memory drags Didion into what she aptly labels “the vortex,” a dark emotional void triggered by mundane experiences—a glance at a pool, a drive by a familiar drugstore—that leads her back to horrible pain and grief.  

The play works because of the dramatic tension between what once was and what is. Turner traverses the road between flashback and present-day with surefootedness. When Quintana is transferred from a hospital in New York to one in Los Angeles, Didion constructs a plan to avoid any street or stomping ground that may remind her of John. Simultaneously, she is obsessed with reading everything she can about both John’s death and Quintana’s illness. She believes she can bring John back if she understands the minutiae of his death, and she believes she can save Quintana if she micromanages the hospital staff. One of John’s doctors calls her a “cool customer” when discussing with her the need for an autopsy, while one of Quintana’s doctors threatens to quit and let Didion, with her constant questions and suggestions, manage the case. This tension between avoidance and near psychotic attention to detail makes for a complicated, mentally zig-zagging character. It is an understatement to say that Turner is up for the challenge.  

As if Didion’s words and Turner’s performance aren’t enough to make the production a hit, Daniel Zimmerman’s set design and Jesse Belsky’s lighting are likewise excellent. Didion’s living room looks authentic and suited to her character, with shelves of books and sleek wood flooring. Belsky’s lights subtly signal the aforementioned shifts between memory and present-day and synch effectively with Didion’s vacillating moods.

At Arena Stage to Nov. 20. 1101 6th St. SW. $70. (202) 488-3300. Arenastage.org.