With its distinctive mission to favor the theatrical voice of women, the Strand Theater offers a solid production of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Based on her earlier memoir, the play explores Didion's grief during the improbable year in which she faces the sudden death of her husband and the prolonged medical crises leading to the death of her daughter.
The monologue is vintage Didion. Precise details of jewelry, clothing, medicines, corn fields, and airplane seats are recalled with a military severity. The pain of the year's grief is threaded with ironic comments on comparative river views and senses of time. This is very much the tiny affluent world of the literati who circle Didion and her author husband John Gregory Dunne. Not everyone is buried from the vaults of Manhattan's Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Not everyone can dryly compare commissions for Life vs. Vogue. The author's bewilderment at the death of the family wanders through the brittle, name-dropping gossip of several blocks on the Upper East Side.
Dianne Hood provides an engaging performance of the one-woman monologue: not an easy task at a running length of 80 minutes without intermission. Hood's Didion is very much the grande dame: in regal control of all the lethal events, ready for a precise commentary on each odd twist, lucid about her inconsolable grief as she magically and impossibly tries to wish her husband and daughter back to life. As consistent as Hood's performance is, the emotional range seems limited. The irony, the control, and the literary wit of Didion are present, but the rage and the bewilderment at the losses seem subdued. A certain primness dominates.
Miriam Bazensky's direction permits Hood to move gracefully over the Strand's tiny stage. Every effort is made to avoid the stasis that so easily overcomes dramatic monologues. In recounting her adventures with grief, Hood occasionally moves into an effective soft mime.
One of the heroes of the evening is set designer Debbie Bennett. The sleek, stylized set of Didion's apartment projects the coolness, accomplishment, and (thanks to a prominent mirror) the self-absorption of Didion. Even in her most painful self-disclosures, the self-assurance and wry calculation of Didion remain the stronger.