“Life changes in an instant. The ordinary instant.” And so it did for Joan Didion in 2003, when her husband John Gregory Dunne succumbed to cardiac arrest in their New York apartment.
Complicating the understandable shock and disbelief was the fact that their daughter, Quintana, was in the hospital in a medically induced coma due to septic shock. The result of Didion’s attempt to stave off the inevitable reality of her widowhood while fighting for her daughter’s survival was “The Year of Magical Thinking,” published in 2005 and an instant classic of the memoir genre.
In 2007, Didion adapted the book into a solo piece, which Vanessa Redgrave played in New York and London, and which now comes to the Laguna Playhouse in a gravely elegant, quietly absorbing production starring the great Linda Purl.
Although Didion’s dramatic reconfigurations of her justly celebrated literary account of coping with untenable grief aren’t easily absorbed into theatrical terms, the zigzagging time frame and subtle variants of phrase and intent are tailor-made for a virtuoso performer of significant inner resources. And in the transcendent hands of Purl, that’s exactly what it receives.
Indeed, from the moment Purl walks out to the chair that centers designer Francois-Pierre Couture’s sparely atmospheric set, directly addressing the audience as though speaking to one person -- “This happened on December 30, 2003" -- her lighthouse eyes and coolly brittle delivery grab the house in a death grip. She doesn’t let go of it thereafter.
Under the knowing direction of Jenny Sullivan, Purl captures the wry humor, reportorial detachment and imploding pain that characterizes Didion’s writing style and the subtext and personality beneath.
Whether explaining her reasons for adopting the titular process, putting myriad twists on Didion’s various repeated phrases and key words, or simply refusing to play for our tears, Purl reminds us anew of just how nuanced and singular an actress she is on stage.
And when Joan (as the character is called in the script) finally sees her two objectives -- magically bringing John back and urgently staving off Quintana’s decline -- faltering at the climax, the combination of choked-back emotion and calm understanding that Purl achieves is almost unbearably poignant.
Credit Sullivan, who does everything possible to honor Didion’s aims while breathing some dramaturgical frisson into what is essentially a compression of an elegiac study of mourning, and Couture, whose wonderful lighting and projected chapter headings and photos are invaluable.
But it’s Purl’s razor-edged turn that ultimately makes “The Year of Magical Thinking” an unforgettable experience.
“The Year of Magical Thinking,” Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sundays. Also, 2 p.m. Oct. 30. Ends Nov. 2. $36-$61. (949) 497-2787 or www.lagunaplayhouse.com. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.