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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 39.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Sarah Day grapples with grief as Joan Didion in American Players Theatre's The Year of Magical Thinking
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Sarah Day shines as Joan Didion.
Credit:Zane Williams

"Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends," writes Joan Didion in her arresting 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. She returns to these phrases over and over throughout the book, as if by repeating them she can ultimately accept them. Through plain yet penetrating language, Didion explores both the rawness and the very ordinariness of grief.

On Dec. 30, 2003, Didion's husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, died before her eyes during a massive cardiac arrest in their New York apartment. Didion dissects her grieving during the year that followed, at once poring over clinical reports and hoping irrationally that Dunne might return.

It's a powerful book, and it has been given an equally powerful treatment on stage in a one-woman show adapted by Didion herself. American Players Theatre has mounted a new production in its intimate Touchstone Theatre (through Oct. 4). Sarah Day, a member of APT's core company since 1986, gives a tour de force performance that should not be missed.

This is precisely the kind of material APT should be tackling in its small, indoor space, and Day, directed here by Brenda DeVita, knocks it out of the park. It's satisfying to see an actor of Day's caliber dig into this role and do it justice: She captures Didion's rage, tenderness, self-criticism and sheer disbelief at what has transpired. The result is a moving and unsentimental examination of memory and loss.

Didion hasn't only lost her spouse of 40 years; her situation is compounded by the simultaneous hospitalization of her only child, daughter Quintana Roo Dunne. Quintana's illness is somewhat mysterious; what at first doesn't seem dire rapidly morphs into sepsis. In fact, the night of her husband's fatal attack, Didion and Dunne had just returned from visiting Quintana in the hospital.

APT's production beautifully mirrors the spare, direct quality of Didion's book. Yu Shibagaki's scenic design is minimalist: a grouping of platforms of pale wood, with cream-colored candles burning on the platforms' outer edges. A lone Danish modern chair and small end table stacked with books sit on the main level. Costume designer Holly Payne dresses Day simply in a loose, boxy ensemble of mushroom-colored linen, a la the designer Eileen Fisher.

Audience members accustomed to seeing Day in period frippery, like the dresses and hats worn by her character in this season's Oscar Wilde play at APT, may be startled to see Day in this modern, pared-down style, her salt-and-pepper hair cropped close. So much the better if they are startled; it's a way of opening the audience up to the experience to come, just like the decision to have Day on stage and in character while the audience is getting seated, and to leave the house lights most of the way up during the performance.

Because the theater is not dimmed to the usual degree, Day can see us, just as we see her; this is, after all, a conversation. We are in her space, and Day/Didion addresses us with startling clarity. Of her choice to spurn companionship the night of Dunne's death, choosing instead to sleep alone in their home, Didion says, "I needed to be alone so he could come back."

Those who have lost a loved one will understand the desire to undo the course of events, as well as the realization that the past can't be changed. Death is both ordinary and profound. The Year of Magical Thinking explores that terrain in ways that are deeply intelligent and illuminating.

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