The Year of Magical Thinking at Bas Bleu

Bas Bleu's Production of "The Year of Magical Thinking"Reviewed by Tom Jones

“Wendy Ishii Triumphs as Joan Didion in “The Year of Magical Thinking” at Bas Bleu

Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, were both respected writers  living in New York City, but with strong ties to California. Their only child, a recently-married adult daughter, had been hospitalized for five days, and was in a coma in a New York hospital. Her parents had just returned to their apartment, after visiting with the daughter, when Mr. Dunne slumped over the table at dinnertime and died.

Thus begins the heart-wrenching tale of love and survival that Didion made famous in her book, “The Year of Magical Thinking” with that “year” being when she could not come to terms with her husband’s death, only to have her life further complicated by her daughter’s continuing illness and subsequent death. The book, basis for the play, was published in 2005, and Didion won the National Book Award for Nonfiction that year, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for biography/autobiography.

Wendy Ishii becomes Joan Didion for more than two hours, sharing her grief, memories of joy and of pain and suffering, in this one-woman show. Hers is a bravura performance!. As Didon, she remarks that, “Grief has its place, and also its limits –“not a matter of a lifetime, a matter of some hours”.

I have a short attention span, and I had no idea where the first hour went. I had been under Ishii’s spell for more than an hour; when it suddenly became time for Intermission, and I was forced to have a 15-minute pause to regroup my own thoughts!

Didon and her husband had been married 40 years, and were respected literary and Hollywood screenwriting giants. They had just recently provided script for the Barbra Streisand movie “A Star is Born,” when tragedy struck. She was initially unwilling to accept the reality that her husband would not return. She did give away some of his clothing, but would not part with his shoes, as she felt, “He would surely need them when he returns.”

Wendy Ishii is a wonder. She does not mope around the stage as a bewildered Joan Didion, but carefully retraces the times and activities surrounding her husband’s death, and of the subsequent tribulations she experienced with her daughter criss-crossing the country to be under care of several hospitals – none of which could truly help her. Ishii is comfortably attired, as she stands and sits to tell her tale. Lighting is wonderful, as she moves around her apartment, in and out of various places in New York and California, confronting demons of the past and present, and hopefully coming to terms with what might be her future. Didion’s situation is specific to herself, but the theme is universal. Didion (as Ishii portrays her) wants the audience to understand her experience – because “It will happen to you – and you will survive it.”

Ishii is founding artistic director of Bas Bleu Theatre and teaches acting at Colorado State University. She has received numerous acting awards and was named “2008 Person of the Year” by John Moore at the Denver Post. Her performance as Joan Didion in “The Year of Magical Thinking” earned her the 2013 CCTC “Best Actress” award at the state festival held at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. This year she was honored as recipient of Westword’s “Best One-Person Show” award.

The Bas Bleu production is directed by Oz Scott, whose theater credentials are extensive for the stage, as well as film and television. He received a CCTC “Excellence in Directing” award for Magical Thinking” at Denver Center last year. Oz is currently Commissioner for the Cultural Heritage Commission for the City of Los Angeles. He is a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (M.F.A).

Ishii and Scott have combined talents with Robert E. Braddy, set and lighting designer, John Hill, costume designer, Price Johnston, sound designer, and Tricia Navarre, production stage manager, light and sound board operator.

The combination of talents results in an evening of magic, as Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking” is experienced.

Where: Bas Bleu Theatre, 401 Pine Street, Fort Collins
When: Through October 5, Thursdays through Saturday evenings at 7:30, Sunday Matinees at 2:30 p.m.
Cost: $13 to $26, depending upon performance and age.
Information: Box Office 970/498-8949, www.basbleu.org

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