Mourning Has Broken: Hedman?s Didion spins a brittle tale of loss.

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To say Joan Didion had a terrible shock in December 2003 is to beggar language: After a visit to her comatose daughter in a New York hospital—septic shock had followed a simple fever—Didion returned home, built a fire, and watched as her husband and fellow littérateur, John Gregory Dunne, collapsed and died at their dinner table. The Year of Magical Thinking, the wise and devastated memoir that emerged in the wake of that awful night, is all the more striking for the lucidity with which it contemplates things that must have lacerated its writer’s heart. The solo-performer stage-adaptation of that memoir—which incorporates the grim two years that followed, with Didion’s daughter in and out of other hospitals before dying in August 2005—employs the same title, a nod in the direction of primitive cultural grapplings with the incomprehensible. And for a time it’s a moving confession of functional madness from a fiercely rationalist writer. Didion—played at the Studio Theatre by Helen Hedman, whose lean frame can’t help communicating vulnerability, even brittleness here—locates herself with great clarity amid the ordered chaos that follows any death: the bureaucracy, the arrangements, the obits, the services. Punctilious even in crisis, she retreats behind her huge sunglasses to quarrel with a social worker’s word choice. Observant even in grief, she notes the particularity of being her famously bicoastal, suddenly shattered self. (Joan Didion cannot allow the Los Angeles Times to learn about Dunne’s death from the New York Times, it seems, which means at least one more phone call than the average grieving wife would be required to endure.) Direct even in retrospect, she explains—gracefully but without the gentleness a more sentimental chronicler might employ—that while her experience may have been singular, something similar will come one day to surprise those who sit, watching and pitying her: “This happened on Dec. 30, 2003,” she says. “That may seem a while ago, but it won’t when it happens to you. And it will happen to you.” And you, Didion explains patiently, will do and say and plan things that make no sense except as strategies for reversing the irrevocable. Studio’s quietly unfussy production, like Hedman’s studiously contained performance, befits a stylist of Didion’s spareness and rigor. (The elegant set is warm, blond-brown wood; the chic costume, sensual and severe at once, is a cream angora sweater atop simple black jeans.) Alas, the evening eventually loses its way among the echoing landscapes of grief and the warm expanses of memory it explores. Didion is a writer of considerable intellect, but she is not a dramatist of particular confidence; the play is more valleys than peaks, and what emotional headway this staging develops dissipates with half an hour left to go. You’re left thinking—unforgivably, and yet—that the brave woman onstage might seem braver if she’d dwelled on her losses, and her loves, and what she’d learned, just a little bit less.