The Year of Magical Thinking | Queensland Theatre CompanyLeft - Robyn Nevin. Photos - Heidrun Lohr

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is suspended somewhere between reality and timeless delusion.

It’s where Didion lived after the death of her husband, sheltered from the full force of grief, functioning while falling apart, desperately controlling what can’t be controlled, departmentalising an entirely sane mind from the magical hope that he will somehow come back.

When her only daughter is struck down again with recurring illness, adding to the unimaginable tragedy, she recoils even further. Always in control, obsessively efficient, deliberately and stubbornly wrangling her thought patterns to avoid total breakdown. She maps out a route to the hospital each day that takes her past none of the landmarks and reminders of the family she has lost. She stays in a Los Angeles hotel rather than return to the family’s Malibu retreat because she can’t bear the memory of her little girl playing on the beach, her long hair braid bleached from the sun and green from the pool chlorine.

In their New York apartment, Didion can’t throw out her dead husband’s shoes because, she says without a hint of deceit, “he would need his shoes if he was to return”. She knows he won’t – Didion is, believably insisting, not crazy. But part of her must believe in the possibility that he somehow could.

“The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought,” she says. “I have still not tried to determine – say, by giving away the shoes – if the thought has lost its power. ‘Magical thinking’ is a phrase I learned when I was reading anthropology. Primitive cultures operate on magical thinking. ‘If’ thinking.

“If we sacrifice the virgin, the rain will come back. If I keep his shoes…”

Didion , now a spritely 74, is a writer’s writer. Vividly truthful yet gorgeously lyrical. She’s written five novels, but truly excelled at the slice-of-life essays she would most affectingly open up her own life to. With her husband, writing muse and Hollywood screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, gone and daughter Quintana cruelly battling insidious illness, Didion began taking notes for what would become the 2005 book and now play The Year of Magical Thinking.

It is an extraordinary work from a truly extraordinary writer. On stage it presents as a searing portrait of the process of grief; a sort of controlled, coherent collapse in Didion’s case that finds humour and such human truth in the most devastating circumstances.

Cate Blanchett brought the play to the Sydney Theatre Company last year, directing Robyn Nevin in an acclaimed show. With the same production transported to the Cremorne Theatre, Brisbane audiences should jump at the rare chance to see theatre this good.

For 90 minutes alone on stage Nevin, queen of the Australian stage, is captivating. Her buttoned-up Giorgio Armani jacket (the famed Italian fashionista and Sydney Theatre Company patron is credited as costume designer) is at times, seemingly, the only thing keeping her upright. Her wrinkled cheeks are damp with tears that never really form let alone flood. Scatty (deliberately, it seems right to assume) but entirely lucid. Nevin is as in command of the role as Didion was of her life – humanly fragile yet inspiringly stoic.

It is a genuinely magical night at the theatre.

Queensland Theatre Company in association with Sydney Theatre Company presents
The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion

Director Cate Blanchett

Venue: Cremorne Theatre, QPAC
Dates: 16 September – 17 October 2009
Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes
Tickets: $38 - $58, Under 30: $30