Entertainment & Arts

Review: ‘The White Album,’ Joan Didion and the seismic shifts of California in the ’60s

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Mia Barron in a scene from “The White Album” at Freud Playhouse.
(Reed Hutchinson / CAP UCLA)
Theater Critic

Joan Didion’s 1979 essay “The White Album” is both a classic of new journalism and an artifact of the tumultuous period it chronicles. Composed as a series of high-resolution prose snapshots of late 1960s California, this elegant literary mosaic bears witness, in both its form and content, to the breakdown of the prevailing postwar American narrative as Didion’s own faith in the conventions of a stable, communicable reality begin to unravel amid all the radical upheaval.

Lars Jan, a director, artist and activist who practices his own discipline of collage through multimedia performance, has himself sought out the secret connections between personal history and seismic societal shifts. In “The Institute of Memory (TIMe),” which was performed at REDCAT in 2015, he pursued the documentary trail left by his late Polish-born father, a mysterious Cold War operative, in the context of the contemporary debate on identity, data and privacy in the post-Edward Snowden era.

In “The White Album,” staged at the Freud Playhouse this weekend in a Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA presentation (in association with Center Theatre Group), Jan paid tribute to Didion’s essay by having it incanted by Obie-winning actress Mia Barron, a co-creator of the piece and his offstage partner. This recitation was at the core of a multilayered production (developed by Jan’s company, Early Morning Opera) that radiated with a light hallucinatory touch.

The first order of business wasn’t the landmark text but an introduction to an onstage audience of people in their 20s who volunteered to participate in the show as auditors of a parallel experience that, through the magic of headsets and soundproofing, only they were privy to. These adjunct performers were also used at times to flesh out scenic tableaux inside a translucent room that initially stood in for the rambling house on Franklin Avenue that Didion rented with her husband and child at a time when the coherent world seemed hellbent on committing suicide.

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Scene from "'The White Album" at Freud Playhouse.
(Reed Hutchinson / CAP UCLA)

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A small ensemble was deployed to conjure moments described by Didion, but the method wasn’t so much illustration as playful reinterpretation. Jan adopted an approach that was reminiscent of the spirited way Elevator Repair Service has theatrically transmuted such classic literary works as “The Great Gatsby” and “The Sound and the Fury.” The method, neither throat-clearingly serious nor completely silly or slapdash, could be described as carefully relaxed.

Adaptation wasn’t the point. Jan and his company responded to Didion’s writing as artists inhabiting a different age. Little effort was expended at conjuring the tie-dyed surface of the flower-power zeitgeist. Even the music from the Doors that was performed in one segment is filtered through a distinctly modern sensibility.

Barron, who miraculously unfurled Didion’s words from memory, was dressed in a long tan skirt and light white sweater. She didn’t attempt an impersonation of the author, whose personal style has contributed to her status as a cultural icon. Instead, she incarnated the forensic grace of an unmistakable literary voice.

Didion’s famous opening line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” suggests its interrogatory premise: How does one psychologically survive in an age in which the cords of meaning have been severed by riots, LSD, Charles Manson and a bitterly divisive war? A successful magazine and movie writer, Didion wanted to believe that the principle of cause and effect was still operative, but traditional linearity could no longer keep up with the dizzying pace of a jump-cut world.

Adaptation wasn’t the point. Jan and his company responded to Didion’s writing as artists inhabiting a different age.

To manage the chaos, she had to transform her art. While holding fast to the values of empirical reporting, she opened herself to the vertigo of experience. Resisting the impulse to make connections, she relinquished control of everything but the refinement of her magisterial prose.

Jan achieved an analogous stylistic rigor in the coordination of his production’s scenic elements. The glass-like structure, a generative space designed by P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S Architecture, easily morphed from Didion’s Los Angeles home to the Alameda County courthouse where Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton was awaiting his murder trial to San Francisco State in the throes of protests.

The lighting by Chu-Hsuan Chang and Andrew Schneider shifted imperceptibly from fluorescent to California dreaming. Jonathan Snipes’ sound design and music bridged distant aural worlds. Kate Fry’s costumes situated us in the theatrical present while sneakily evoking the past.

Barron maintained a tonal steadiness with the same sanity-clutching determination that Didion exhibits in her writing. The supporting performances, while enjoyably spry, were less precise. An air of openness and informality was integral to the production, but sometimes the exploratory vibe came across as tentative and unfinished. When Jan finally opted for a grand gesture, a shootout between a police officer and a radical protester that kept playing out ad infinitum, the effect seemed blurry as well as forced after so many half-measures.

But like Didion’s essay, the production didn’t want to impose a false narrative frame. At the end, a Quaker-style meeting was held between company members and the audience to process the “incendiary” themes of revolution and state power. A couple of theatergoers recalled their own memories of the events Didion was recording. There’s always a filibuster at these post-show discussions, but the conversation was searching and compassionate. The progressive spirit of half a century ago flickered into life. In the middle of our own political madness, human beings gathered together for reflection and somberly found hope.

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