Keen Company’s THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING Is More Than Magical
There is an unsettling quiet here. So often a dark theatre provides anonymity to emotions: an unlit audience typically grants permission to feel deeply while unrecognizable, but that is not here. Sitting in a private living room on the Upper East Side, there are 14 people still with nervous tension and Kathleen Chalfant can see right through me.
In Keen Company’s latest, The Year of Magical Thinking, the words of writer Joan Didion are on display in their truest form. The writing was first published in 2005, winning the National Book Award for Nonfiction. A Broadway adaptation of the work—starring Vanessa Redgrave—was mounted in 2007, but this production is far from the construction at the Booth Theatre. In place of traditional venues, Keen has taken this one-woman project to more intimate spaces. Performances rotate between community settings and private residences. This is closer to a gathering than a show, more of a spiritual experience than artistic.
From the townhouse’s front door, there is an attempt to make everything cheery. The lights at full level, jazz music over an internal speaker. Despite the effort to make this preshow light, something is very, very eerie here. Unlike the Broadway production, Didion has now passed, and this is the closest simulation we will ever get to a conversation with her again. The conversation, a single monologue of musings for Chalfant, glides in its wholly natural state. Just like the experience of reading Didion on the page, this dialogue is conversational. That’s not to say this is lighthearted: it is incredibly heavy, the themes rooted in the inevitability of death and grieving. All the while, on top of the colloquialisms and dark moments, our new home is luxurious and glittering. The Year of Magical Thinking transcends time and space and challenges the capacity of human connection. Here we are, in conversation with Chalfant, Didion, the walls of this home, the atmosphere of this city. Our own evening of magical thinking.
In a post-Didion world, I wondered if her writing would still hold as strong as it once did, only to find it more relevant than ever. The unexpected twist is the timeliness of the show in an unfortunately-mid-COVID society. Here, Didion describes loss, on the micro and macro levels, and her instinct to fight, save, and remedy the pain around her. This production and her musings (a particular story about an in-hospital cognitive test known as “the gilded boy story”) remind of the power in words. Nothing flashy, just pain on display and the innate ability to care. So minute and precious I could hold it in my hands.
Kathleen Chalfant is absolutely remarkable in her nuance, stamina, and ability to create an entire world while sitting in an armchair. She is at home in this text. While it may not be her home, nor is it mine, we’ve all found our way here. For a random living room and an assortment of strangers, this production and its atmosphere are near-holy.
After an hour and a half of storytelling, Chalfant exits the living room as quietly as she arrived. The tension has not shifted and, if anything, the room has become too vulnerable for the normal post-show buzz. I think through the etiquette, my mind racing with metaphors and meanings…should I talk to my neighbor who held back tears? Should I introduce myself to the listener across the room that made eye contact, nodding in a poignant moment? I decide to leave in silence, taken aback by the connections made without words. This experience was everything and more.
The Year of Magical Thinking will run through November 20. For performance information and tickets, visit here.