85 Minutes of Magical Acting

seana mckenna
photo by david cooper
In his Director’s Notes for The Year of Magical Thinking, which plays at the Tarragon Theatre until December 12th, 2010, Michael Shamata reminds us of the correlation between theatre and storytelling. Indeed, it is from this tradition that the theatre has continually emerged in cultures all over the world and this one woman tour de force starring Canadian theatre legend Seana McKenna is a stunning reminder that sometimes all that is needed for an evocative and haunting evening is a room, an audience and a formidable storyteller.
The play has been adapted by Joan Didion from her memoir of the same name which chronicles her harrowing journey after the loss of her husband, John, from a sudden heart attack, while their only daughter Quintana was fighting for her life in the ICU in a coma following septic shock from what was initially diagnosed as walking pneumonia. For the year after John’s death, while Quintana was in and out of the hospital with neurological problems following a massive hematoma that caused her to collapse outside the LAX airport shortly after attending her father’s funeral, Didion kept herself together through a practice called magical thinking.
According to the programme notes, “in Anomalistic Psychology Leonard Zusne and Warren H. Jones write, ‘in American psychiatry magical thinking is defined by characterizing the patient as an individual who believes that his or her thoughts, words or actions might, or will in some manner, cause or prevent a specific outcome in some way that defies the normal laws of cause and effect.’ This practice is not unlike the idea that we can bargain with the gods to keep disaster at bay and seems to be a concept that many people have encountered during crises, if only in brief subconscious flashes.
Didion begins her story as a cautionary tale, and Michael Shamata has Seana McKenna on a well lit stage devoid of a fourth wall where she speaks with immediacy and candour directly to the audience, warning them that no matter how much they may resist and deny the inevitable, someday they too will be faced with a grief that will stricken them as she was over losing John, and ultimately Quintana, insinuating that this story of loss is one that all of humanity shares.
Mckenna does not attempt to imitate Joan Didion in this performance, but rather embraces and truly lives the story as an actor working from the text she is given, which I think allows for her to give a richer and more intensely layered performance. She does capture nicely the urban ambiance of sophistication and celebrity that Didion, a novelist, journalist and screenwriter, took for granted. It could be said that the character’s penchant for namedropping and alluding to aspects of the Hollywood culture that a Torontonian audience would be unfamiliar with is alienating, although personally I was fascinated and revelled in hearing stories about flying to Paris on a whim, boarding airplanes barefoot, the Beverley Wilshire Hotel, and children growing up in Malibu. In fact, Mckenna treads a delicate balance between connecting ardently with her audience, acknowledging their presence as the receptors of her story, but also keeping herself protected, slightly cold and distanced, sharing only that which has been meticulously constructed in an eloquent and literary way.
There is a school of thought in the theatre that advocates that it is more powerful for an audience to see a character struggling to contain her overwhelming emotions than to watch her break down in a flood of passion. It has been argued that watching a character fighting back tears is more likely to make those watching her empathize with tears themselves than watching an actor cry. I felt that Shamata and McKenna were employing this strategy to powerful effect in this play because Joan’s strength and her frantic need to control and micromanage every aspect of the crisis surrounding John, as well as the crisis surrounding Quintana, made her admirable and tragic simultaneously, as well as alluding to her vulnerability, but still keeping it tucked nicely beneath a domineering and self possessed demeanour.
The highest praise I can give to Seana McKenna in this role, praise which is unquestionably warranted, is that she does not really “act” at all for the entire duration of the piece, she just is. She is the epitome of natural, a lesson, I think, for all those interested in this art form on how seamless the line between living and performing can be and how powerful it is to watch an actor who has mastered her craft with such intricate finesse. There is a moment when Joan does allow herself to crack, a tear or two roll down her cheek amid an otherwise quite composed moment, and it is effortless and heart wrenching. She also manages to illuminate the humour that Didion has woven into the script, which not only enriches the story, but also provides a bit of comfort along an intense and harrowing journey.
What I find so captivating and heartbreaking in this story is the anguish that Joan experiences as she recalls the past, the moments that resuscitate her husband and daughter from their graves, because her memory is filled with the contradictions and complications of life. On the one hand, she characterizes her relationship with her daughter and the dynamic between her and John as idyllic. They were happy with one another. She revisits the moments of Quintana’s childhood almost compulsively and speaks of having relied on John to be her best friend and the person whose opinion she trusted and counted on, not to blindly accede to his wishes, but to consider his perspective with respect. Yet, she also remembers the moments when Quintana met her with a distant formality, her desire to always be right and always to have the last word, and she tortures herself wondering if she expressed her love for them enough and if they were as inseparable and open with one another as she wanted them to be. Most ardently she wonders if she has failed them somehow in allowing them to slip away, to let go of the fence, as she so beautifully puts it. I think it is in this genuine portrait of one woman’s reaction to the death of her family that our lesson truly lies, and it is one that we are so familiar with that it seems almost clichéd to spell it out. Ultimately, we will all be faced with the question of whether we maximized all the potential in the relationships with our loved ones in the time that we have been given or whether it has been squandered or taken for granted. It also seems to me that regardless of how grateful we are each day for life and for love, as human beings our thirst for one more day with the people who mean the most to us will never be quenched. That is the universal tragedy for those who are left behind and this play does this sad experience poignant and poetic justice.
The Year of Magical Thinking plays in the Tarragon Theatre Main Space (30 Bridgman Avenue) until December 12th, 2010. For more information or to book your tickets please call 416.531.1827 or go online to http://www.tarragontheatre.com/.   

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