From the moment that Linda Purl steps onstage in The Year of Magical Thinking, it’s clear that this one-woman show offers the actress multiple challenges, which she rises to completely. The play, which describes in vivid detail the reaction of author Joan Didion to the back-to-back deaths of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and her 39-year-old daughter, Quintana, remains ruthlessly demanding for every grueling minute of its nearly two-hour, intermissionless runtime. And yet, for the most part, it moves swiftly, propelled by Didion’s language and Purl’s performance, which succeeds in making these wry laments into something mesmerizing.
Although there’s no question that Purl gives a great performance, it is less certain that The Year of Magical Thinking is a great play. A staffer at her husband’s hospital refers to Didion as “a cool customer,” and while in the show that’s offered up as yet another irony, it’s a perspective that refuses to completely go away. Didion drops the names of fellow show-biz insiders and familiar (to her) elite locations so compulsively — Honolulu and Cannes, Santa Monica and Malibu, Lynn Nesbit, Katharine Ross, and Brian Moore — that even the hospitals involved take on the reflected aura of Didion’s hyper-identification with her own rarefied milieu. This tendency to rely on the trappings of her celebrity remains stubbornly at odds with Didion’s initial assertion that her experience is universal. The show’s core message — that death comes to us all, ready or not — becomes diluted, rather than strengthened, when it’s watered down with these Didion-specific status markers of a privileged show-biz insider.