BWW Reviews: THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING at the Theater At Monmouth is a Heartbreaking, 'Magical' Performance

BWW Reviews:  THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING at the Theater At Monmouth is a Heartbreaking, 'Magical' Performance

Shows featuring a solitary performer onstage are a hell of a thing. Playwrights/authors put their thoughts and ideas into a piece that is often biographical, and just as often fictional. The sole performer then must bear their soul onstage, working one on one with a director to inhabit the persona of the character. With no nets, no outside help, this actor or actress then leave themselves emotionally naked onstage with only themselves for help; equally terrifying and fulfilling. Janis Stevens does just that in her performance of THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING at the Theater at Monmouth. A performance that will leave you in awe.

The piece is written by Joan Didion, who has become well known for her nonfiction work, often chronicling the political world and American culture (I must confess, I was not familiar with her work before seeing this piece). She has worked for Vogue, Life, Time, Esquire, and the New York Post among others. She has also written multiple novels and screenplays, most recently co-authoring the screenplay for Up Close & Personal (Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer) with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne. THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING was first published as a memoir in 2005, and in 2007 Ms. Didion adapted this work into a one woman show. The play is the account of the year following the death of her husband, and also concerns the illness of their only child, Quintana. As Joan, Janis Stevens tells of the events surrounding her husband's death, her daughter's illness and the analysis and reliving of all of the above. The work's title refers to the idea that if someone hopes and wishes for something enough, this positive thinking can change the course of events.

The moment Janis Stevens walks on stage, she will have you mesmerized. In the course of an hour and a half, she takes you on a roller coaster of emotions from hearty laughter to tears. She commands the stage and your attention for every second; so strong is her performance, it's hard to believe that the person you are watching didn't actually live through these events. Her seamless transitions from seemingly manic moments to more jovial pleasant memories will keep you on The Edge of your seat throughout. Her performance is indeed a masterclass for any actor who seeks to know more about their craft, or to watch a true master at work. So comfortable is she in her own skin, it feels as though she has invited you into her living room to tell you her deepest thoughts in her most terrible of times. And though she is speaking someone else's words, she makes them her own so convincingly that the pictures of memories she creates are almost tangible. Ms. Stevens' performance is inspiring, heartbreaking and fantastic. Toward the end of the piece, she speaks about what I feel the heart of the show is, and in lieu of a play by play synopsis, I thought I would simply print the author's words: "Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We know that someone close to us could die. We might expect to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect to be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy....and here lies the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is: the unending absence that follows, the void, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself".

Dawn McAndrews' direction brilliantly handles what could be the trappings of one performer onstage. She uses Joan's switching of subjects and segues as motivation for movement. Ms. Stevens uses the entire stage for the entirety of the show. Her near manic episodes are brought to fruition through her body, and not just her voice. But, the director has also given the actress a good amount of freedom to find choices organically, which is an integral part of why the piece is so well done. Similarly, the technical elements all come together to make a cohesive unit; so strong are these elements and their execution, Ms. Stevens must not feel TRULY alone on stage. Lynne Chase's lighting design is simple and appropriate, and services the performance almost as an actual guiding light; never telegraphing to the audience where Ms. Stevens might move next, but almost showing her that there is a light at the end of her proverbial tunnel. Joan's memories are made that much more vivid with help from the subtle and brilliant sound design by Rew Tippin. As Joan speaks of her husband speeding up California's Pacific Coast Highway in her Corvette, you almost aren't sure if your imagination has conjured up the car's engine revving, or if it is indeed an actual sound cue. And Jim Alexander's set gives the actress a veritable playground to move around; a long dock in the middle of the stage, a simple bench and gorgeous strands of flowers upstage. These also service the storytelling by creating physical landmarks to make Joan's memories even more vivid.

If you have though even for a moment about seeing one of Theater at Monmouth's shows this season, I URGE you to do so. Not one of their shows will leave you disappointed. Though this piece is certainly an emotional journey for performer and audience alike, it is an emotional journey that is worth taking. For more information and for tickets to THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING or any of Theater at Monmouth's other offerings this summer, please visit www.theateratmonmouth.org

Photo credit: Aaron Flacke


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