Barbara Berlovitz stars in The Year of Magical Thinking at Nimbus Theatre in Minneapolis
Photo by Liz Neerland
Nimbus Theatre presents “The Year of Magical Thinking,” starring Barbara Berlovitz, through May 21. The play is based in large part on Joan Didion’s memoir of the same name, which deals with the death of her husband, while her daughter was in a coma. The play also includes the death of her daughter, which occurred while Didion was on the road promoting her memoir.
Are you considering seeing the show? Reviews of the play deem it everything from ” a heartbreaking piece of theater that should not be missed” to “90 minutes of dispassion” and “a competent but flat production.”
Check out these excerpts of reviews by local critics, or click on the links to read the complete reviews.
…Berlovitz finds the sense of balance in Didion’s logic. Her phrasing has the precision of poetry; emotion — when there is any — comes in silent pauses. Berlovitz creates a Didion who seems initially thrown off her game by this shock, but recovers through detached reportage. Her husband “does not look like he needs to be dead,” she says in the kind of sharp insight that anyone who has seen a dead body understands. She considers the time zones when calling friends on the West Coast. It’s three hours earlier there, does that mean her husband hasn’t died yet? She’s almost a bit smug in her confidence, in her sense of control. She will not let this intrusion destroy her homeostasis.
…Berlovitz loses some of her rigor in the latter half of Nimbus’ production, directed by Liz Neerland. Her eloquence is not quite as sure, but this could be an opening-night observation.
“The Year of Magical Thinking” will not satisfy those looking for raw, emotional grief. Didion is not a robot. Her feeling is as deep as any person’s but her reaction is a spare, intriguing look at the intellect’s endeavor to right itself after catastrophe.
…The work offers tremendous challenges for the performer, as the emotions in the hour-long piece are kept so close, but veteran Barbra Berlovitz masterfully takes the audience on Didion’s journey. Don’t expect any massive epiphany or rafter-rattling histrionics. Berlovitz’s performance remains true to Didion’s cool but devastating prose, whether it’s describing the author’s inability to give away her husband’s shoes (what would he wear if he came back?) to riding cross-country on a medical transport to take her daughter from Los Angeles to New York, all the while hoping the worst had passed but being honest enough to know it hadn’t. Berlovitz, along with director Liz Neerland, crafts a heartbreaking piece of theater that should not be missed.
Photo by Liz Neerland
The idea of losing your entire family, including the sudden death of your spouse of many years and your children, would evoke deep pain and grief for most. But somehow, in “The Year of Magical Thinking” at Nimbus Theatre, that emotion is lacking.
…It begins to feel long, even with Barbra Berlovitz’s tuned performance, including a very thoughtful, matter-of-fact delivery that never attempts to hook us into the deeper grief that may be lurking far beneath the surface.
The problem is that the story lists things that happen without conveying their emotional resonance. For instance, Didion finally gives in to the compulsion to drive down a street that she fears will resurrect memories of happier times and ends up spending hours there – but that’s all we know of the event. We get no sense of her inner struggle or even what she thought about, although she obviously felt it was meaningful enough to mention. It feels as if we are on the outside looking in, barely scratching the surface of a deeper experience.
…Didion’s story is at times interesting, but it is not as moving as one would expect from a litany of such loss. Her telling of the events is too reserved and her emotions too controlled to be satisfying onstage.
…Another challenging aspect of this script is that it’s elliptical and non-linear, with the character going on tangents and making parenthetical observations, approaching its themes in a circumspect manner that belies the supreme craft that went into its writing. What’s wanted here is a complete embodiment of this character, a performance that makes the audience believe they’re listening in on Didion’s spontaneous inner thoughts. Berlovitz, however, makes her stops, starts, and turns with a deliberation that never lets you forget this is a scripted monologue.
She’s not helped by Josh Cragun’s set, which is functional but unattractive and does little to evoke a sense of Didion’s world. The gauzy greys might be intended to evoke a higher plane among the clouds, but put a couple of couches in there and it would work better as a set for No Exit. Jake Davis’s sound design also pings in with intrusive, distracting, and unnecessary effects. More effective is Mitchell Frazier’s warm lighting design, which subtly modulates the space’s mood over the course of the 90-minute show.
Those many readers who were moved by Didion’s book will be interested to see how this theatrical adaptation incorporates the author’s second loss. Those who haven’t read the book, though–me included–might do better to spend an evening with it than to meet this material under the aegis of this competent but flat production.
Have you seen Nimbus Theatre’s production of “The Year of Magical Thinking?” If so, what did you think? Share your reviews in the comments section.