Seana McKenna channels Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking

Seana McKenna channels Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking

(Photograph by David Cooper; Photo-illustration by Wes Duvall) 

Before the publication of The Year of Magi­cal Thinking in 2005, Joan Didion was known as a brilliant essayist and novelist. After it, her name became shorthand for widowhood, so stunning was her account of the year following her husband’s sudden death (which was also the one leading up to their daughter’s). By 2007, Didion’s book had been adapted as a Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave, a casting choice that gained extra meaning when Redgrave’s own daughter, Natasha Richardson, died in a skiing accident in Quebec. And now it’s Seana McKenna’s turn to slip on the cloak of sorrow and stare down loneliness and anxiety—barefaced, resentful and resilient.

As one of this country’s greatest stage actors, McKenna has a résumé stacked with larger-than-life characters: Phèdre, Medea, Blanche DuBois. (Hell, in 2011, she’ll even be tackling the title role in Richard III at Stratford.) Playing Didion, a role she premiered last November to raves at Victoria’s Belfry Theatre, requires her to be spare and self-possessed—an analytical, bereft wife who isn’t comfortable with the conventional displays of grief. Rare is the actor who can make electric a glacial, meditative play. Rarer still is the one who can resist the urge to slide into big-subject banality even for the most infinitesimal of moments. Without performers such as McKenna, certain stories—ones like The Year of Magical Thinking, ones hinging on restraint—couldn’t be told.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Nov. 2 to Dec. 12. Tarragon Theatre.