Linda Purl por­trays Joan Did­ion in The Year of Mag­i­cal Think­ing

LINDA PURL POR­TRAYS THE GRIEF-STRICKEN JOAN DID­ION

Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

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.

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