Calling an actor “courageous” for taking on a challenging role is usually the height of hyperbole. But it rings absolutely true for Linda Purl, who will star in the Ensemble Theatre Company’s one-woman show The Year of Magical Thinking.
The play, based on the best-selling memoir by author Joan Didion, is about living life in the face of death — in her case, the sudden death of Didion’s husband, and the slow death of their daughter. Its themes are universal, but they’re particularly personal for Purl.
First, her mother was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. And second, she agreed to step into the role when her good friend Bonnie Franklin, who was scheduled to perform, was forced to drop out due to illness. Franklin, the beloved star of the television sitcom One Day at a Time, died March 1.
Purl’s television résumé ranges from Happy Days to Homeland. Her long and distinguished stage career includes productions on and off Broadway, as well as at many regional theaters (including Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, where her memorable roles include Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire). We spoke with her about the wrenching whirlwind she has experienced over the past few weeks.
When did you first get a call asking you to step in? It was maybe seven weeks ago. Bonnie was a longtime friend. I immediately communicated with Bonnie, telling her I could only do this with her blessing, and adding that, “If things turn around for you and you want it back, it’s yours.” She wrote an incredibly gracious email back. Bonnie was a great cheerleader for all of her friends. That was our last communication.
So it means a lot that you can step in for her? It does, on every possible level. I’ve worked with [director] Jenny Sullivan for many years on many projects, so it seemed rich on many fronts. After I agreed to do it, I got a call that my mother was faint and tired and had gone in for tests. It seemed that something was going on, so I flew to Colorado and went with my mother and father to my mother’s medical appointment. That result is that my mother is in hospice.
A few days later, we were all reeling from this news, and I said to my mother, “I must not do this play. My place is to be by your side.” My mother said, “Absolutely not.” But I had decided in my mind to tell Jenny and Jonathan [Fox, Ensemble Theatre Company’s artistic director] that I couldn’t do it.
I opened my email to send a message, only to have received an email that Bonnie was gone. At that point, I thought, “I must stay the course, and honor Bonnie’s gift to me.”
Trying to do right by Bonnie, you must feel a lot of weight on your shoulders.
Theater is supposed to be in service. None of us gets through life without loss — loss of home, career, friendships, marriages. A lot of people in Santa Barbara lost their homes [in the Tea Fire]. This play brilliantly strikes universal themes. As Joan Didion says at the beginning, this is something we will all go through. Only the details will be different.
What do you say to someone who thinks it will be too depressing? What I’m finding working with the play is that there is extraordinary wit and humor in it, in a Chekhovian sense. There’s humor in the absurdity of the circumstances she finds herself in. You’re thrown into a world that you know nothing about. You have to negotiate it, learn the language. That can be quite farcical.
It’s not depressing, but it is real. Her writing is so authentic. The way that she interweaves her stories; it’s a beautiful piece of literature.
In the book, the prose is cool, almost clinical. Didion had to emotionally detach to survive this experience. How does that affect your portrayal of her? I’ve never met her, but my sense is that one of her survival mechanisms is to cling to logic.
Years ago, I flew by myself to the Grand Canyon. It was in the winter. It was desolate. I remember walking on one of the walkways on the edge of the canyon. The canyon itself was socked in with fog. The illusion was there was solid ground to your left. But it was anything but. You were safe, but only if you stuck to the trail.
That image has come back to me dealing with Joan Didion. There’s this enormous cavern, this vortex of sorrow and deep, rich emotions. But as long as she sticks to the logic of the trail, she is safe.
The Year of Magical Thinking previews tonight, Thursday, April 4, and Friday, April 5, at 8 p.m., opens Saturday, April 6, at 8 p.m., and shows through April 21 at Alhecama Theatre (914 Santa Barbara St.). Call (805) 965-5400 or see ensembletheatre.com.