The one thing you should see this week

The one thing you should see this week

Seana McKenna in The Year of Magical Thinking (Image: Tarragon Theatre) 

This week’s pick: The Year of Magical Thinking

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Seana McKenna is faced with the task of bringing to life a work that’s all about death, one that evokes well-deep emotions through unrelenting analysis. Based on the virtuosic 2005 memoir by American essayist and novelist Joan Didion, the play tells of the dissolution of a tight-knit family formed by Didion, her husband John and their only child Quintana. When John dies suddenly of a heart attack, days after Quintana has been placed on life support, Didion is forced to confront the question of self-pity. Forever a pragmatist, she believes that “grief has its place, but also its limits,” an attitude to which everyone attributes her ability to slog through the ensuing hours, days, weeks, months. In reality, she’s adopted the practice of magical thinking, convinced that John will return if she follows a series of all-important steps. Evidently, she has, as she says, “absorbed the event but not the outcome.” John was dead, but he would come back. She had to hold on to his shoes in case he came back. She had to hold on to his shoes SO he would come back. She had to keep Quintana alive so he would come back.

Watching McKenna channel Didion is a peculiar experience. For starters, the Stratford regular is jarringly unlike Didion. She shares nothing of the bird-like stature that Didion has long used to her advantage in her reporting (no one ever expects her to be quite as calculating as she has proven to be). Her full tones are the opposite of Didion’s quiet ones. In fact, what almost trips McKenna up is her sheer McKenna-ness. With few exceptions, her performances are master classes in acting, and it’s no different here. With Didion’s restrained text McKenna’s formidable technique becomes all the more apparent. There’s the way her voice thins out with sorrow, the way she pulls up her sleeves, the way she squeezes out laughter in short, laboured bursts, the way she quickly flicks a tear out of the corner of her eye. A small part of you never forgets that you’re watching an actor onstage. It’s not a bad thing. After all, Didion’s story hinges on willing one’s self to think magically, knowing fully that reality always wins out.

The details: To Dec. 12. $37–$44. Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave., 416-531-1827,