Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking with Dorothy Ann Gould at The Market

Dorothy Ann Gould5Pictures: Lungelo Mbulwana


The Year of Magical Thinking

Playwright: Joan Didion (based on her memoir)

Actor: Dorothy Ann Gould

Director: Mark Graham Wilson

Set and Costume Designer: Nadya Cohen

Lighting Designer: Thapelo Mokgosi

AV Designers: Jurgen Meekel and Andrea Rolfes

Sound Designer: Paul Riekert

Venue: Barney Simon at The Market

Dates: Until April 1



Death is something that affects all of us.

It’s a scary thought and probably why we don’t spend much time thinking or talking about it on a personal level. This is exactly what the extraordinary writer Joan Didion does following the loss of first her husband John Dunne, while their daughter Quintana is in a coma, and then dies a few years later, leaving a devastated wife and mother behind.

Described as an unusually close family threesome, that’s probably what turned this into such a dramatic life-changing trauma that propelled her to share what she had experienced. With this play, she talks directly to her fellow travellers, all of whom will experience this nightmare in some form or another – hopefully not many as traumatic as hers.

She compels her audience to participate, not allowing them to simply watch, but addressing them directly, almost in confrontational fashion, because she feels she must.

She can do this, because she knows in different forms, everyone sitting in the theatre, listening to her, will have to deal with death. That’s a fact. The only thing she cannot predict is how they will experience it and how their particular journey will challenge them. But sitting there, we all know that it will.

Even though she accepted her husband’s death intellectually once she had survived the initial shock, emotionally she imposed a full set of rules to live by to ensure his coming back. As ridiculous as that might sound, when you hear her story, the anguish and the horror she experienced with her partner and soul mate’s death while dealing daily with her daughter’s induced coma, the coping mechanisms that kicked in make perfect sense.

Who of us hasn’t woken up after a particularly bad day and for a moment believed that the bad stuff of the previous day was just a nightmare? Someone close to you dying can have a similar effect depending on your relationship.

Playwright Rachelle Greef wrote in Die Naaimasjien that death is like someone turning their back on you. It is the inevitability, the fact that we can’t control any of this and everything else that comes and goes with the finality of death that makes this such a taboo subject and, in this instance, such a riveting one. There’s not much said in the 80-minute-long play that doesn’t have resonance on some level for everyone participating.

Dorothy Ann Gould3

It’s a masterclass all round. Dorothy Ann Gould and director Mark Graham Wilson are solid gold as a team. He has a delicacy when directing while she slips into character in a way that pulls you directly to the centre of the story.

Gould had to battle the text, the American accent as well as the fact that she is basically doing this long monologue in which she has to engage an audience on a topic that’s deathly serious and scary. But being Gould, she grabs the text by the throat and becomes one with Didion’s sublime and insightful words in a way that holds your thought processes in almost vice-like grip as you navigate your own narrative of what this woman experienced in her life. None of us will be spared, that’s what we all know and are told by this wife and mother who is trying to make sense of her life – even when she has finally let her loved ones go.

The staging adds to the narrative with a visual reflection of her emotional as well as physical presence in the story as a backdrop. Depending on where you sit, it will have specific impact.

The stage is set almost horseshoe-style and for those sitting on the side, almost on stage, the actor draws most of the attention, while from the more traditional auditorium side, there will be a somewhat fuller visual picture.

Moving around the demarcated stage, Gould often stands closer to the audience than the centre of the stage, as if looking on as she talks about her life. The only physical aid is a chair that she sometimes sits in or stands behind.

Dorothy Ann Gould6

So subtly has Graham Wilson worked the production that the striking thing is the conversation that she maintains throughout. It’s as if someone is sharing a story about their life, sometimes -as a relief to both audience and narrator – she slips into a side stream that takes us away from the immediacy of what she wants to unpack. But then she faces the full force of her life and attacks it with the veracity of someone who has lived it.

The despair is devastating and yet, there’s a grace that accompanies her pain and her eventual understanding of what it means for her – and eventually those who are willing to share.

It’s tough but tackled with such dexterity, you want to be there to witness the fullness of what it means to live and love.