I’ve been trying to appease this insistent voice in my head ever since I saw Vanessa Redgrave’s rendition of Joan Didion’s new work, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” A dear and generous friend took 10 of us, mostly strangers or acquaintances to one another, to share what we all expected to be our own magical moment.

Granted, the performance was a preview. But it was a disappointment to me — to most of us, actually, though not to the hostess. I barely voiced my reactions that night and thought it was because I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. I had, after all, expected to write the next morning about our group experience.

Then I sat down at the computer. Still nothing. What was the problem? In the course of one long day, I suffered a year of ghastly torture. Had the fear of criticizing a fine, fine theatrical team — a sold-out-to-the-tune-of-$4-million theatrical team — silenced my critical voice?

More questions came to mind. Who am I to weigh in on this endeavor? When I say I’m a playwright, people invariably ask if they should have heard of me. No, not famous. What right do I have to carp about the work of a brilliant writer, an unsurpassable actress, and a writer/director of enormous skill?

Furthermore, why would I criticize the work of women I revere, women of my generation, whose work I adore and who I want desperately to be celebrated for power of their work?

But there was this other, irritating voice, “Why not speak truth to the powerful?” And my built-in response: If they find out, they won’t like you — and your work.

My turn at magical thinking. They won’t even notice. Four million and counting.

Now the national critics have weighed in. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal reviews sit beside my computer. They mentioned much of what I was thinking. So now I have the courage? Well, yeah.

Here’s what bothered me the most. Sitting in the audience, I kept wondering: “Don’t these people know this isn’t a play?” A play presents people in tough situations, in conflicts that they fight to resolve through interaction with people of significance to their lives, even strangers, in the development of their characters.

“The Year of Magical Thinking” was a compelling book. On the stage it is a lament, full of understandable self-pity and the author’s cry to be recognized as heroic for telling the story.

Still, we must be grateful to artists who take the risk of telling their stories, exposing their souls on the stage, in real time, when anything can happen.

Is there any such thing as a perfect work of art? Some years ago, I mentioned to my friend and mentor, Paula Vogel, that I’d seen the much-anticipated, glorious production of Chekhov’s “The Sea Gull.” Paula lamented that she wouldn’t be able to get to New York City to see it.

She asked me to describe my experience. I did, and then said, “But, see, there’s this terrible moment — it’s in every production I’ve seen, shoestring to stupendous — when the poor guy brings in the dead bird. No matter what that dead bird looks like, it’s always a distraction. You can’t help it; your focus shifts to the resources of the prop department.”

“Why,” I begged to know, “did Chekhov put in that stage direction?”

“Well, dear heart,” said Paula, one of the world’s great teachers, “that’s what gives all the rest of us hope.”

So I really wasn’t looking for perfection when we saw “The Year of Magical Thinking.” But I was hoping for it. I was hoping for more than an evening in a theater with the glorious Vanessa Redgrave. I was looking for a play that would move me to work harder, write better.

Most of the best plays deal with the unspeakable. Yet they shape and transpose the experiences into dramatic, conflicted, terms. To experience Didion’s piece is to watch a great actress try valiantly to portray the unspoken horror of loss. But we don’t know the character known as Joan Didion any better at the end — nor her family.

The robotic quality of the author is conveyed brilliantly. But there is no play there. It was a far better experience for me to read the book, which I virtually inhaled. I’m glad she wrote it, though I didn’t much care for the Joan Didion character telling me at the very beginning of the evening that I’d never experienced anything like what she had — though I might one day.

I presume many people in the audience have suffered terrible losses. I know my friends across the aisle have; I have, too. Every experience like that is totally different and terribly the same and we yearn for enlightenment and catharsis and collective awareness.

So here I am, speaking up — coming out from the slipstream of other people’s voices, sounding my own. Thank you, Joan Didion and Vanessa Redgrave, for prompting these questions. That, too, is a function of theater. And I’ll take whatever I can get.

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  • Dr. Pat Allen April 12, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    I will never forget the production, The Year of Magical Thinking. I adored the language, the cadence of speech, the perfect words, the odd disconnect between such painful words of terrible experience and no felt emotion.
    Monologues as plays must always be difficult to carry off, but Vanessa Redgrave’s memory and command of this story and the space was thrilling to watch – much like a woman on a high-wire, I thought. I held my breath at times, fearing that the experience of the tale telling would be just too much for her.
    What makes a play? Must it be in three acts? Does all conflict become resolved?
    Perhaps the measure of The Year of Magical Thinking is that it will not be forgotten by those of us lucky enough to have seen it.

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  • Carolyn Hahn April 10, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    Thanks for the invitation! I hope we’ll hear more about it! And it’s not that I’m scared of loss as a topic, it’s the guts of what we all have to deal with…maybe it’s just the rawness of performance confronting me with it (ie, I can take it in poetry form, if you know what I mean). But that’s just me…

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  • Elizabeth Hemmerdinger April 10, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    Thanks so much for your kind comment. Please don’t be scared of plays about loss, even stark ones, for loss is the stuff of drama. How the story is spun and how the message is received is the heart of the matter. See a play soon and tell us what you think. Come see my play, SQUALL, in Denver in May. Elizabeth

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  • Carolyn Hahn April 10, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    What a nuanced, thought provoking piece. I’d just read something — where was it — to this effect, that the play was a strange failure. I think the reviewer was having the same problem and was walking on eggshells but the word “condescending” was used, as in, is Joan Didion the only one who’s experienced the grief and loss of death and do we need her to tell us how much it’s going to hurt, “crystaline words” or not? Made me miss Spalding Gray, for what that’s worth.
    Makes me feel like a skunk just saying it — how can anyone take Spalding Gray over Joan Didion. But for this effort, it sounds like there was a little disconnect between the written word and the performance, despite the immensely talented people involved.
    Or maybe going to a play so starkly about loss scares the hell out of me. Anyway, thanks, Elizabeth — interesting critique.

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