(March 25, 2007)

Didion, author, becomes Didion, playwright

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Joan Didion is a writer.

She has put her thoughts on paper for decades in books ranging from "Play It As It Lays" to "Salvador."

With her husband, John Gregory Dunne, she wrote words delivered by Al Pacino ("The Panic in Needle Park"), Barbra Streisand ("A Star is Born") and Robert Redford ("Up Close & Personal").

But none of her words were as personal as those she wrote after the sudden death of her husband and the prolonged illness of her daughter.

That account, "The Year of Magical Thinking," became her 13th book, winner of the 2005 National Book Award. Her stage adaptation opens at Broadway's Booth Theatre on Thursday, starring Vanessa Redgrave.

Writing the play, which she undertook at the urging of producer Scott Rudin, "was a drive to do something new," Didion says.

"It's a dramatically different thing. The writer is much more front and center on a play than on a screenplay.

"The screen is much more literal," she says. "If you write down 'exterior 42nd Street,' you're going to see 42nd Street reproduced on the screen.

"A play is so condensed, like a poem or a phrase of music," she says. "It suggests rather than asserts. The screen tends to assert."

On Dec. 30, 2003, Didion and Dunne returned home from visiting their grown daughter, Quintana, who lay in a coma in the ICU at Beth Israel Hospital North. Quintana, suffering from what doctors thought was the flu, had gone into septic shock.

Her parents, home, settled in for dinner: Dunne read a manuscript and sipped Scotch; Didion lit a fire and fixed dinner.

Within minutes, Dunne had a massive heart attack, sitting in the living room by the fire.

Within an hour, he was dead.

Within days, Didion the writer, jotted a note on her computer:

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.

Those words were still there 10 months later - in a Microsoft Word file called "Notes on change.doc" - when she began writing a book about what she was going through.

Her daughter was still ill - in and out of hospitals from New York to Los Angeles - and Didion's mind was playing a sort of game with her. It had convinced her that - if she did everything just right - Dunne would return.

This "magical thinking," or "if thinking," got the better of her for a year.

As a writer, Didion learned early to research her subject, "to read, learn, work it up, go to the literature."

She pored over medical journals and dictionaries and even subscribed to The New England Journal of Medicine. She questioned doctors with her newfound knowledge, pushed them for details, exasperated them.

She even bought a pair of hospital scrubs, rationalizing the purchase by saying she had brought all her New York clothes with her to Los Angeles and needed clothing to suit the warmer climate.

She made intricate plans to avoid seeing any places that held meaning to her or Dunne or their daughter, plotting her drive down to the most minute detail.

In short, she says, she was going crazy in the fog of grief.

The book "The Year of Magical Thinking" was finished before Quintana died on Aug. 26, 2005, but Didion declined to change the manuscript.

The play that opens on Thursday at the Booth does include Quintana's death and is, Didion says, "my way of working through the death of my daughter."

In the process, the first-time playwright sought and found distance.

She set the play 18 months after the events of the book, allowing her to incorporate Quintana's death. And she began to think of the woman in the play not as herself, but as a character called "Joan Didion."

"Distancing is something that comes naturally to writers," she says. "It was especially important here because a play has to have a shape and you could only find the shape if you found a character. Looking at yourself is tricky, so I looked at a character."

While the book is a straight, almost clinical retelling of details in the care of Quintana, on the stage it becomes a cautionary tale.

Redgrave juts her finger at the audience: "This happened to me and it will happen to you."

"It was always in our minds, that this was [a] Cassandra standing there on the stage," Didion says, "but it became kind of clear that maybe we should say that, that we should explain it."

In the book, Didion is measured, rational, clinical, doling out detail after detail. On stage, Redgrave is much more emphatic, as she wonders "If I had done this, would he...?".

The play is "a much more internal view of the character," the playwright says.

Redgrave shouts at several key moments. "That developed fairly recently in the process," says Didion. "We realized that there is a point at which you are raising your voice, whether you're literally doing it or not.

"I remember driving around Los Angeles when Quintana was (in the hospital) at UCLA with tears running down my face, wanting to scream.

"But most of us are brought up so we don't scream to ourselves. Well, sometimes in the shower," she says with a dry laugh.

"I think the character is showing you more of her internal life than I showed."

Didion created a difficult part for an actress - a character who speaks in a stream of consciousness, rattling off medical jargon and bits of personal information.

"The role, as written, puts tremendous demands on the actor, because there are these lightning turns throughout," she says. "And I'm not sure too many people other than Vanessa could do it."

Didion concludes that this year of believing that if she did the right things she could bring him back, was really her mind's way of getting her mind off John's death.

In the book, Didion describes crossing Lexington Avenue a year after John's death and remembering something that had happened since that night in front of the fire.

The fact that he was not in the memory really put an end to the "magical thinking," she says. She knew he was dead, then, and would not come back.

The writer has heard from women with similar experiences.

"I got a letter from a reader this morning who had lost her husband and described exactly that moment," Didion says.

"She said, 'I don't know when I stopped, but I did. I realized this morning that I did.' She said, 'It was my crossing-Lexington moment.'

"You don't realize it until it's over," Didion says. "It's like if you have some kind of physical pain and you don't realize it's gone until suddenly you think 'I'm not hurting anymore.' "