We like to believe that magical thinking is left behind in childhood, that it’s the stuff predating our initiation into the rational, orderly world of adulthood. As a journalist, Joan Didion is very much a rational observer of the world, capable of telling a tale by arranging the observable, verifiable facts of a matter.
Why, then, could she not dispose of her husband’s shoes after his death?
It was an observable, verifiable fact that he was gone: keeping his shoes in no way made it possible for him to once more be there beside her, alive and well.
But somehow, it felt like it did.
The Year of Magical Thinking, a National Book Award-winning memoir, is the story of how Didion made it through the year following her husband’s death. It was also the year leading up to the death of her daughter, an emotionally harrowing year of mourning for the man who was no longer with her while caring for the increasingly frail daughter who, for a time, remained.
Didion, one of the iconic voices of American literature and the New Journalism revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, was already the author of numerous well known books, including her classic essays on the fragmentation of American culture, Slouching towards Bethlehem, and screenplays for films such as A Star is Born and Up Close & Personal when The Year of Magical Thinking awakened a whole new audience of readers to her richly evocative writing style.
Sharon Graci, of PURE Theatre, had actually fallen in love with the book long before it was adapted into a play. “I just thought it was a really beautiful story,” she says. “It was a testament to how great and deep their love was for one another. When the play came out, it was a no-brainer that PURE would do this.”
The play features Lucille Arrington Keller as Didion. Keller, a drama teacher at Academic Magnet High School, is marking her PURE debut with a challenging role. The Year of Magical Thinking is a one-woman play, its quiet power emerging out of the tale being told by the solo actor onstage.
“Doing one-person plays is something PURE has done since the very first season,” says Graci. “It’s an art form we are inspired by. And it’s no secret that PURE is a bunch of theater nerds, for lack of a better term. We put a great deal of stock in training and in continuing to work with actors who are very much on top of their game and who are willing to continue to grow, stretch, and raise their own personal bar every time they work. I think that Lucille Keller embodies that.”
For Graci, the play stirs up the stuff of memories, the transitory nature of the people and situations we encounter in life. “There’s this wonderful essence of memory that we all know,” she says. “You look back on something and the memory is good. Bittersweet is the only word I can think of to describe that feeling, because it’s past and never to come again. But you wouldn’t trade the transitory nature of that for not having experienced it.”
“To me, that’s the essence of this play. This is a person who has lived well, loved well, and obviously been very fortunate in her pursuits in life, both with her husband and independent of him. It’s about raising a daughter and being given 39 years with that daughter. It is every bit as much about those aspects of living life to its fullest as it about the grieving process and what it means to lose someone.”
This is what lends this story its greatest power: It is simultaneously a narrative that is deeply personal and universal. If we have not yet gone through the process of saying goodbye to someone we have loved so deeply, Didion’s character reminds us, rest assured, that someday we will.
That’s when the question of when to finally let go of those shoes will become our own.