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STAGE REVIEW

The delicate negotiation of 'Magical Thinking'

Nancy E. Carroll as Joan Didion in ''The Year of Magical Thinking'' at the Lyric Stage. Nancy E. Carroll as Joan Didion in ''The Year of Magical Thinking'' at the Lyric Stage. (Lyric stage company)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / January 7, 2009
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Whatever Joan Didion is writing about, she is ultimately writing about herself. In a sense this is true of all writers, but the difference with Didion is that she never lets us forget it.

Indeed, with her relentless dissection of the ways in which her various subjects affect her own sensibility, she makes it plain that for us to read her work without reading her is not only impossible but exceedingly undesirable. The subjective viewpoint, the subject in view: In her they are made one.

Never is this more clear than in "The Year of Magical Thinking," both the memoir by that name and the one-woman play that grew out of it, which is now receiving its New England premiere in a finely wrought production at the Lyric Stage Company. In fact the play, by reducing the book to a monologue spoken by a single character whose name is Joan Didion, makes the identification of author and artifact, storyteller and story, seem complete. Joan Didion lived through the sad events the play describes; Joan Didion wrote the play; Joan Didion performs the play.

Except - wait - Nancy E. Carroll performs the play (and beautifully, too), just as Vanessa Redgrave did before her on Broadway. As it happens, this is essential to the nature of what Didion does here, as she has done everywhere: While appearing to present her bare self to us, what she in fact presents is a character that resembles that self - or so she tells us. Because, really, what can we ever know of her true self except what she tells us? By her very offering up of a meticulously constructed "self," she keeps us forever at a remove from whoever that self might actually be.

Such intricate and carefully polished games have earned Didion the writer a devoted following, as well as a persistent and nagging chorus of naysayers. They also make it difficult to critique the work without appearing to critique the person, a point that becomes even more sensitive when the ostensible subject, as it is here, is the death of the two people whom that person loved most, her husband and daughter. Only a cad would presume to pass judgment on another human being's chosen way of mourning, especially of so great a loss.

As an artist, then, rather than as a human being - as a playwright, and also as the character that playwright has created onstage - Joan Didion comes across, in "The Year of Magical Thinking," as an awfully distant, controlled, and even frigid character. She herself seems aware of this, as when she quotes the hospital social worker who called her "a pretty cool customer." She also seems aware that somewhere deep under that coolness lies a well of rage and grief and fear, but the entire play is an exercise in keeping that well from rising to the surface.

For an actor, such a piece offers many opportunities to suggest the subtext beneath the coolly lacquered surface, and Carroll, directed with typical grace by Eric C. Engel, uses all her considerable skill to exploit these opportunities. Her face reads like a smooth mask of unruffled calm; her voice articulates each carefully considered phrase with precision and proper weight; her hands, lightly resting on her knees or delicately folded in her lap, remain steady and controlled through all the recurring crises and ultimate loss - except that, in face, in voice, and in hands, Carroll occasionally lets the surface shimmer, just a bit, so we sense the turmoil beneath.

It is a lovely and expert performance. So why, in all the sorrows of this sorrowful tale, did I remain almost completely unmoved? I admired the performance; I admired the writing; I admired the polished bangle on the character's wrist. But even when the foreshadowed tragedy of that bangle was revealed, I felt . . . nothing.

And I think I felt nothing because I was not being asked to feel anything. I was being asked only to admire the delicacy of the being before me, whose feelings were presumably there somewhere but were not to be shared with the likes of me. Only when I imagined what I would feel, were I that woman, were I to lose both husband and child in so short a time, did I have the faintest urge to cry.

It passed. And I was left alone again in the dark, again asked only to admire.

I admire the skill. I abhor the sensibility.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING

Play by Joan Didion

Directed by: Eric C. Engel. Set, Matthew Whiton. Costume, Mallory Frers. Lights, Shawn E. Boyle.

At: Lyric Stage Company, through Jan. 31. Tickets, $25-$50, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com

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