Audiences are often a little resistant to seeing a play in which only one actor appears. Time and time again, however actors and playwrights have shown that the essentials of a rewarding theater experience can be met with a solo performance and a compelling play. To prove this: On Broadway for your consideration there is “The Year of Magical Thinking” and Off Broadway there is “Beyond Glory.”
‘The Year of Magical Thinking’
It may be hard to imagine how Joan Didion’s heartbreaking but courageously distilled account of how she responded to the unexpected heart attack and sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, while also coping with the discouraging illness of their daughter, Quintana, can be turned into gripping theater.
In adapting her book, the winner of the 2005 National Book Award, for the stage Didion has amended her memoir to include the subsequent death of Quintana from acute pancreatitis. Far from a traditional theater experience, the 90-minute play has its rewards. It is fortunate that Vanessa Redgrave, an actress of incomparable skill and sensitivity, has been given the task to bring the right amount of emotional coloring to what is essentially a monologue.
Despite the tragic events that presage this purposefully cathartic purge, Didion’s gift for droll humor is threaded skillfully throughout her necessarily abridged text. Redgrave, seated on a chair on a bare stage, details the events of an ordinary evening that lead to Dunne’s collapse at the dinner table. Didion’s life is suddenly sent veering from its somewhat prescribed course as a celebrated author of fiction, non-fiction, and numerous screenplays, into an unknown and unknowable territory. She cannot stop her mind from its need to repeat, reconfigure, reconstruct, and re-image the facts into a what if scenario.
Permeated with the rush of overwhelming minutiae, much of it concerning her 40-year marriage, dealing with the overload of medical data, going over conversations with doctors, and coping with the added tragedy of her daughter’s equally unexpected death, the play is shaped by Didion’s need to shift determinedly between reality and an altered reality.
The play’s title is suggested by the practice used by ancient cultures to revise the events that produced an unhappy situation by rethinking them. But this is no delusional or reckless metaphysical detour that Didion employs but rather a clear and conscientious technique that prompts her to play out all the probabilities. This may sound simply like a form of self-help therapy or a lecture but that isn’t the case given Redgrave’s luminous, finely textured performance. That Redgrave doesn’t look or sound a bit like Didion doesn’t matter at all, as Didion’s words seem to be coming from deep within Redgrave’s being.
David Hare’s unhurried direction, Bob Crowley’s abstract setting of curtains that invites a faint vision of the ocean and a horizon, and Jean Kalman’s subdued lighting collaborate to support Didion’s memories of herself, her husband, and her daughter. Some may say that this is not a play but a staged reading. Many, however, will respond to the intense and personal connection that Redgrave makes with the audience. Others may say that this first play by Didion is too cool, too anthropological to be good theater. What this play does is make us think about how essential is surviving a tragic loss on our own terms. HH
“The Year of Magical Thinking,” through Saturday, August 25, Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street. $76.25 to $96.25. 212-239-6200.
The bumper stickers that read “support the troups” may have succeeded in polarizing Americans who have opposing views on the current war and the need to sacrifice the lives of young men and women in a mission that is largely political and charged with propaganda. All wars are hell for those who have to fight them but for some it brings out the best in them. Stephen Lang, a terrific, sturdy, and tough-looking actor, has adapted Larry Smith’s book (of the same name) in which two dozen recipients of the Medal of Honor are interviewed.
In the more condensed play, Lang portrays only eight of these decorated veterans but they are each given an essential individuality that sets them distinctly apart from one another. Among them are the 97-year-old Navy Lt. John William Finn, a Pearl Harbor survivor who, although wounded, “secured and manned a 50 caliber machine gun in a completely exposed area under heavy enemy machine gun strafing fire;” Lewis Millett, who deserted the U.S. Army in October 1941 and enlisted in the Canadian Army only to end up ironically a hero of the Korean War; farmboy Nick Bacon, who says “I enjoyed combat. I enjoyed the game”; and Daniel K. Inouye, the Democratic Senator from Hawaii who served during World War II in the 442nd (Nisei) Regimental Combat Team; and deceased former Senator James Stockdale, a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for seven-and-a-half years and Ross Perot’s running mate during the 1992 presidential election.
Lang, whose grey hair is buzzed and whose body implies that he has just completed six weeks at boot camp, may rely on some stereotypically macho body language. But his countenance is varied and crafty enough to create distinct and memorable portraits of soldiers with different ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds and in the different branches of service. Aside from exchanging articles of clothing taken from a trunk, Lang allows eight heroes an opportunity to remind us that they do, indeed, deserve the citation (read as a voice-over) they received.
Except for fine direction provided by Robert Falls and some projections of rice paddies and documents, there is little additional enhancement of the text. Although the stories, told as interviews, reveal torture, the loss of limbs, and the effects of imprisonment, they mainly consider the underlying, but often inexplicable, spirit and attitude of the soldier under fire. You will also get a charge from the story that Finn tells of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning December 7, 1941, just as he was beginning to make love to his wife. He was so angered by the interruption that he ran to the nearby airlines hanger and grabbed a machine gun and, despite being wounded, fired at them for two and a half hours.
The excellence of the script is in its regard for each soldier’s personal assessment of his actions: doing what had to be done without regard for his own survival. This is a humbling and inspiring play. HHH
“Beyond Glory,” through Sunday, August 19, the Roundabout Theater at the Laura Pels Theater, 111 West 46th Street. $56.25 to $66.25. 212-719-1300.