Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

11/08/2012 - 08/09/2012

Production Details

NZ première opens CIRCA TWO – Saturday 11th August 7.30pm 

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”  

Wise and profoundly moving, The Year of Magical Thinking is an eloquent, touching journey from contentment, into the underworld of grief, and back.  

“This happened on December 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you …”  

Adapted by Joan Didion herself from her award-winning, best-selling memoir, it is a story of ‘the year spent wishing’ following the sudden and unexpected loss of her beloved husband, John Gregory Dunne, and their only daughter, Quintana. The Year of Magical Thinking speaks beautifully and heart-rendingly of the power love has to give life meaning. 

Joan Didion is one of America’s iconic writers, and her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking on which the play is based, is a stunning book of electric honesty and passion that explores an intense, personal, yet universal experience. A spare, lucid, and remarkably moving examination of the year following her husband’s sudden death just before their fortieth anniversary, it is the story of Didion’s search for answers, for relief, and above all for the chance to change the course of events. Filled with often surprising insights and more than a dash of humor, it is one of the most critically acclaimed books of the decade. 

For Didion, recasting The Year of Magical Thinking into a play offered a deeper knowledge of what happened to her. “For me, it’s part of the process of understanding anything,” she says. “Because until I have gotten it outside of myself, I don’t understand it.” 

Didion says that everything in the book was “reimagined” for the play. “You didn’t start with the book,” she says. “You started with the experiences that had led to the book and then you recast them from a considerably different perspective.”

Much had changed in the nearly two years since the book was written. Didion’s daughter died shortly after she finished writing the book.

“But also I had had a slightly larger perspective than I had had when I was writing the book,” Didion says. “When I was writing the book, I did not know whether or not I would survive. When I was writing the play, I knew that I had survived.”

“A masterpiece of perception … utterly compelling” – Sunday Times

“Poignant, heartbreaking and wry … the emotions are so genuine we can’t help but be affected.”  – Newsweek

“Didion has a peerless ear for the music of words in motion” – NY Times

“An indelible portrait of grief and loss … a haunting portrait of a four-decade long marriage.”  – NY Times

“Will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband, wife or child”  –  Economist

“Powerful, moving and true” – Spectator

A play of this extraordinary power, perception and emotional depth requires a very special actress – and we are very fortunate to be starring the wonderful Catherine Downes:

Catherine says: “When Susan Wilson invited me to play this role I felt privileged and excited, but also hugely challenged and a bit daunted.

“How to approach this immense journey, this powerful and intricate weaving of the threads of grief so acutely observed by Joan Didion during her Year of Magical Thinking.

“The writing is a kind of subjective journalism – a merciless self-analysis, which is simultaneously richly poetic.

So what is my job here as the actor?

“I’m thinking that it is to engage the audience, simply and directly, and to guide us all – myself included – through this deeply personal yet universal journey, using Didion’s blazing torch of a script to brilliantly illuminate the way our mind operates, and where it takes us as we discover ‘hard, sweet wisdom’ through grief.” 


CIRCA THEATRE, 1 Taranaki St, Wellington
11th August – 8 September 2012 
– Friday 10th August – 7.30pm;
– Sunday 12th August – 4.30pm;
AFTER SHOW FORUM – Tuesday 14th August
Performance times:
Tuesday to Saturday – 7.30pm
Sunday – 4.30pm

Ticket Prices:
Adults – $46;
Concessions – $38; Friends of Circa – $33
Under 25s – $25; Groups 6+ – $39
Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki Street, Wellington
Phone 801 7992  |  


Set Design: Penny Angrick;
Lighting Design: Marcus McShane;
Music Composition: Gareth Hobbs.  

It will happen to you

Review by Amanda Witherell 22nd Aug 2012

Set aside the subject of grief and everything it can do and undo in a person: Catherine Downes’ performance as Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking is something to witness. There aren’t many actresses who could pull off the complexity of emotions surrounding death without being overwrought or underdone and still own the audience’s attention for 90 minutes. 

From the moment Downes appears, a spectre behind a semi-transparent screen bathed in ethereal blue light, she is the character left behind, the one still living. Downes’ face when she steps in front of the screen is one of a woman struggling to hold something back and wanting to release at the same time. “It will happen to you. That’s what I’m here to tell you,” she says.

Written by American novelist and journalist Joan Didion after her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and her daughter, die within two years of each other, the script is more fleet-footed, dynamic, and revealing of her personality than the two books on which it is based. Self-pity or sadness aren’t allowed to dominate one moment as she oscillates between clinical details of death and memories that make up so much of life. Humour also gets fair play. “It’s still early in Los Angeles. Is John even dead there yet?”

The most powerful moments are not when John and Quintana die, but when Didion is swept into flashbacks or trapped in the tangled logic of magical thinking. Still, there are no screams, no shattered glass, no bouts of sobbing – Downes rides the waves of grief like a survivor stoically rowing the lifeboat, honest tears leaking from her eyes for much of the performance.

Penny Angrick’s set, a wall of bookcases and windows, suggests the lounge of a writer as well as the boxy skyline of a city, and real glass in the windows was a smart touch for this reflective monologue. Downes uses the architecture of it well, working both sides as she steps back into the past and forward to the present, at one point gripping her way along the hard corners lest the vortex of grief pull her under. Gareth Hobbs’ score never jars or interjects, providing texture and signalling turns in the story.

Downes isn’t Didion, but she fully inhabits her memories and all the ranges of emotions, so when she flashes back to a happy night in Honolulu and says, “I had such a sense of wellbeing I did not want to go to sleep,” it strikes a chord of joy as powerful as the knell of death.  


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Masterly portrayal of loss and survival

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 15th Aug 2012

How someone deals with the loss of not only their husband but their only daughter within the space of nine months would not be considered by most people as something they would want to see performed on stage.  

But American author and writer Joan Didion’s experiences of how she dealt with such a situation, dramatised from her 2005 book, makes The Year of Magical Thinking, Circa Two’s current production, an electrifying piece of theatre. 

Her husband dies of a heart attack at dinner one evening after visiting their daughter in hospital who was in an induced coma having suffered septic shock after a bout of pneumonia.  Then, although her daughter has periods of getting well, she eventually dies nine months later of pancreatitis.

But as the play shows Didion re-living and analysing her husband’s death while all the time caring for her daughter, she doesn’t follow the usual course of grieving nor wallow in self pity. Although her writing is heartfelt, it is also incredibly expressive and lyrical, a mark of the great writer that she is. 

Initially she is in a type of denial, thinking that if she hopes enough or carries out the right actions, then the inevitable won’t happen, which she likens to magical thinking in the anthropological sense, hence the title of the play.  But she soon moves on from this, especially after her daughter dies.

However, as good as this Didion’s writing is, it still needs to be brought to life on the stage and this where Susan Wilson’s production makes this into a superb piece of theatre.

And while the simple but effective set of Penny Angrick, Marcus McShane’s subtle but very evocative lighting design and Gareth Hobbs haunting music all add much to the quality of this production, it is the stand out performance of Catherine Downes that transcends this production into something special. 

Solo performances often incorporate multiple characters.  Not so this play.  Catherine Downes is nobody but Joan Didion relating her year of magical thinking and how Downes does it is masterful.

From the moment she appears on stage with her opening lines, reticent, holding back, but powerfully seductive, the audience is drawn into her world where they stay for the duration of the production savouring Downes’ exquisite performance.

There are moments of emotion, beautifully handled by Downes, but for the most part this is a rational, sometimes even calculating, way of dealing with loss which Downes portrays with such confidence and ease. Consummate performer that she is, the strength, stamina and ability of someone to perform what is essentially a 90 minute monologue is quite extraordinary.

A must-see production for not only the writing but for Downes’ amazing performance.


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The gift of truth perfectly pitched

Review by John Smythe 12th Aug 2012

As the audience rises to applaud Catherine Downes’ solo effort, the wonder of it is she has made her 90 minute marathon seem effortless: such is the centred fluency of her beautifully paced and modulated performance, directed by Susan Wilson.  

Don’t be put off by the subject matter: grief. This is not an emotive wallow. It’s a character study more than anything, provoked by two deaths in the family. That the husband’s is relatively predictable makes its suddenness no easier to cope with than the daughter’s, which is appallingly premature, long drawn out and unexpected, despite the sojourns in ICU.

If it was fiction we might ask, why make up something like this? But it’s all true. It happened to American writer Joan Didion, she completed a memoir about her response to the death of her husband of 40 years (novelist, screenwriter and literary critic John Gregory Dunne) and the serious illnesses of their daughter, Quintana (almost as old as their marriage), a year and a day after he died. Then, after Qintana’s death, she developed The Year of Magical Thinking as a solo performance piece (her only play), adding more about their only daughter. (Her subsequent memoir, Blue Nights, published last year, deals more fully with the Quintana story.)

Its truth, then, is incontrovertible. And what is most true is its portrait of a woman who likes to be in control attempting to cope with having no control over things that affect her profoundly, and regaining some semblance of control in the process.

Despite her compulsion to be objective, observational and analytical – including of herself – the truth we experience, both hers and our own, is highly subjective, whether it is gained through our own objective observation and analysis, or through intuitive empathy or a mixture of both. 

Her truth isn’t ‘the’ truth. “I didn’t write for a year,” she tells us and yet her memoir was written in the final three months of that very year. Perhaps she didn’t see it as publishable writing at the time but as a private process of coming to terms with it all.

Didion doesn’t overtly present a text-book case-study of the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). Except right up front she does announce she is telling us what we need to know because although the details will be different, we will all experience this. Some of us already have. And will again. Each time was, is and will be very different yet essentially the same.

Denial is certainly present in her experience. But at first glance anger is missing. Except she does recall what she felt was wrong with the hospital, and how she felt about John (her husband) not being there to save ‘Q’ (their nickname for Quintana). So yes, anger is there in the way one dedicated to self control would have it.

The bargaining phase, closely linked to denial, is what leads Didion to see her year as one of ‘magical thinking’. Even an autopsy, in her way of thinking, will lead to John’s death being disproven and his return. This the part most of us keep to ourselves for fear of being thought mad, which is one reason this play’s honesty is a gift to us all.  

The depression phase manifests in what she calls “the vortex effect” and of course acceptance is proven by the very existence of her memoir and this play.

What makes The Year of Magical Thinking very different from most of the solo plays we have seen over the years is its focus on one person alone. There is no display of multi-character acting here. Joan doesn’t even paint us a verbal portrait of John or Quintana, let alone the bit-players in the story (like Q’s husband, Tony). It’s all about her – she admits as much – which may be another thing those in grief feel but dare not reveal. And by tracking her thinking, we get some sense of her feelings.

It has to be said that Joan Didion’s life is not what we’d call ‘normal’. Money is never an issue. While friends were plentiful decades ago they seem insignificant now and no close relations are mentioned at all, although we have to assume John’s funeral was well attended. Tony, the son-in-law, hardly features at all, either as part of her support system or as an obstacle to her reclaiming her daughter. Perhaps this insularity is a function of both Joan and John being writers.  

Humour is also absent, despite its healing properties and intrinsic value as a coping mechanism. But that is something that sparks between people and this is not the theatrical equivalent of an address at a funeral. It is her private truth, her true personality and her gift to humanity, for those who want it.

And there is no denying the subtle qualities of Didion’s writing, as brought to life by Downes, Wilson and the design team. Even though it reviews the past, the script always gives Joan a place to stand in the story; there is always a present – albeit shifting – from which she observes, recalls, analyses, comments …

And every now and then, amid the well-chosen words so fluently articulated, a profound emotion surfaces which is, theatrically, very effective.  

The value of Penny Angrick’s set becomes more and more apparent as the play progresses. Judiciously lit by Marcus McShane, its bleached wood shelving and portals, sparsely punctuated with dark grey books and picture frames, serves admirably as Didion’s apartment before going on to echo the sterility of a hospital and the white light of a beach. It also delineates the apartment block and urban landscape in which the story unfolds.

Composer Gareth Hobbs provides ideal music bridges to indicate the passage of time and, aligned with the lighting, the shifts of locale and perspective.

All is perfectly pitched for the intimacy of Circa Two. We don’t so much witness a performance as spend time with a very particular person who has a profound experience to share.  It is 90 minutes very well spent. 


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