Linda Purl portrays Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking
LINDA PURL PORTRAYS THE GRIEF-STRICKEN JOAN DIDION
grief is not a constant state of being but an emotion so overpowering that when it hits — in the months, years, and even decades after the death of a loved one — like a powerful ocean wave, it has the strength to suck you to the bottom of the sea, flip you over, and eject you, desperate and gasping toward the shore. When grieving a spouse with whom you spent 40 good years, the isolation is even more surreal. During the year after the 2003 death of her husband, writer and literary critic John Gregory Dunne, from a heart attack while at the dinner table, the iconic novelist and essayist Joan Didion, always known as a pragmatist, found herself thinking of ways she could bring him back — by not getting rid of his shoes, for instance, since he would need them for his return. She detailed her grief process in a memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking , which won the 2005 National Book Award. Complicating Didion’s mourning was the protracted illness of her daughter, Quintana, which began days before Dunne died and ultimately led to her death in 2005, at the age of thirtynine. In 2007, Didion adapted her memoir into a play of the same name. It opened on Broadway at the Booth Theater and starred Vanessa Redgrave.
For the last two years, actress Linda Purl has been performing the one-woman show at venues around the country. She brings the play to the Lensic Performing Arts Center for one night only on Saturday, March 28. Purl, who has appeared in the television shows True Blood , The Office , and Homeland , may be best-known for playing Ashley Pfister, Fonzie’s fiancée, on Happy Days and Ben Matlock’s daughter Charlene on Matlock . She spoke to Pasatiempo in advance of her show at the Lensic.
Pasatiempo: How is the play different from the memoir? Linda Purl: Primarily, the book does not include the death of her daughter, which the play does. Also, the premise of the play is that the audience needs to hear what Joan is about to tell them so that they’re ready when they have to walk through an experience of this nature. Pasa: So the play is more prescriptive than the book? Purl: I think so. It certainly feels that way when you do it. It seems to land that way with the audience. I think it’s her manifesto on how to survive grief. Pasa: What kind of research and preparation did you do for the role? Purl: I had the oddest preparation I think I’ve ever had for a role. My mother was diagnosed with cancer at the same time I was cast. It became both my mother’s and my companion through the first two months of her illness. It was extraordinary, because the play gave us permission to talk about all aspects of death. We might have gotten there anyway, but Joan — her journey was so authentic, and she was so exacting
of herself that it allowed Mother and me to have the conversation more easily than we might have.
Pasa: Were you familiar with Joan Didion’s writing prior to knowing of this play?
Purl: Not particularly. Not completely. I had some sense. I’m obviously much more familiar now.
Pasa: Do you take on the character of Didion as the writer people know her as, in the world, or the Didion that comes across solely on the page, as you interpret her?
Purl: Solely on the page. That was an executive decision of the director and me, as opposed to doing something like Tea at Five , the one-woman show about Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn is so well-known — her mannerisms, her voice, her amazing body language. I think Joan is known by her words for the most part. Her voice is so strong in the piece that we thought it would be a distraction to try to imitate her. The other thing is that she’s a very still person from what I gather, and I felt the need to move. I’m not tap-dancing or anything, but I think I’m a little more animated than Joan herself might be, were she to sit and read this out loud to an audience. The more I get to do this play, I see that she is such a warrior. She went through [her experiences] forensically, surgically, to convey exactly what she was thinking at a particular moment when a swirl of things was going on. I find her to be totally unsentimental as a writer. She just wants you to know how she — and, therefore, you — can get through it: This is what’s coming, and this is how you negotiate the boulders.
Pasa: The concept of self-pity is very important in the text. She seems to want to avoid it, although she doesn’t really make any hard and fast declarations about her ability to do that. Why do you think it was so important for her to avoid self-pity?
Purl: My feeling is that self-pity for her is a slippery slope. You can just lose yourself in the black hole of grief; you can cave in. She mines that mind warp, that semi-hallucinatory state, once you’re in the world of grief. How do you chart that? How do you keep moving through it? How do you get up in the morning? How do you choose to live?
Pasa: The book doesn’t include the death of Didion’s daughter, Quintana, who died while Didion was promoting the book. Do you know how this was worked into the play?
Purl: As I understand it, Scott Rubin, the producer [of the Broadway production], approached Joan after the book had come out and after her daughter had died and gave her the assignment of turning it into a play — and then had the temerity to say she’d have to add a part about her daughter dying, because the audience can’t be smarter than her, and everyone knew that her daughter had died. So she took the challenge on. My sense in the play is that she comes to the telling of her daughter’s death very reluctantly, because to say it again makes her dead again. Pasa: Have you learned anything from the play? Purl: When the play was being done on Broadway with Vanessa Redgrave, I opted not to see it because I prejudged it and had not read the book. I’m so sorry I missed the chance to see it then. My father died a month ago, and now I’m coming back to do the play having just buried him. I’m curious to see what it will be like to do the play again with this new experience folded into my life. Both my parents lived to ripe old wonderful ages, and there was nothing tragic about it, as Joan’s losses were tragic. But death is death. I was forewarned by the play. When I had the experience with my mother, I just kept thinking, “She’s right, she’s right, she’s right. At every turn, she’s right.” It’s extraordinary to me how she’s tapped into something so universal. The play has much more to do with life than it has to do with death. And it’s not just physical death. In every one of our lives there are seasons of death and rebirth. The play translates those experiences. We’re not very good at talking about death in America. I think Joan provides a real service.