‘The Year of Magical Thinking’
By Joan Didion
Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle
1101 Sixth St., S.W.
Oct. 7-Nov. 20
Kathleen Turner has done one-woman plays before — she played Tallulah Bankhead in “Tallulah” in 2000-2001 and the title role in “Red Hot Patriot: the Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins” at Arena Stage in 2012.
But this time, it’s different. For her latest production — Turner has become almost as well known in recent years for her stage work as her film roles, which date back to 1981’s “Body Heat” — Turner will play legendary author Joan Didion, whose stunningly frank 2005 memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking” told of the aftermath of the loss of her husband, the author John Gregory Dunne who died suddenly in 2003.
The “magical thinking” of the title refers to the phenomenon of the mind in deep stages of grief where rational thought is sometimes circumvented as a coping mechanism. Didion wrote that at times she felt she couldn’t give away Dunne’s shoes, for surely he’d need them upon returning. Didion won the National Book Award in 2005 for the book, something of a career capstone for the author, known for California-centric writing in works like “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album” as well as screenplays she wrote with Dunne.
Didion adapted the book to the stage in 2007 with Vanessa Redgrave. Turner spoke to the Blade last week by phone from Washington where she was in early rehearsals for the Gaye Taylor Upchurch-directed Arena version.
WASHINGTON BLADE: Tell us how you discovered this work and how things are going so far.
KATHLEEN TURNER: We’ve only had one full-day rehearsal, so I think it’s much too soon to say how anything’s going although we had a very nice open reading, just a table reading, the first day that I enjoyed. I was aware of the book, you know, years ago when it was published but I had not thought of it or seen it as a play at all and then I was, well, my mother passed, my mother died last year and it was, oh, it was a life-changing experience. We were close. We had a really wonderful relationship and I knew how much I would miss her. So trying to figure out how all that was going to change, what I could do, how I could handle it and then, of course, I had thought again of “The Year of Magical Thinking” and went back to look at it and discovered the play version and thought, “Well, this is really what I want to put my heart into now.”
BLADE: How old was your mom?
TURNER: Ninety-three so we had a good long time together.
BLADE: Have you met Joan Didion?
TURNER: Yes, I have met Joan over the years. I’ve been in New York and in this business for a very long time now. I think next year will be 40 years that I’ve been doing this professionally. But she’s very frail now. She’s not very well. She won’t be involved, I’m sorry to say, with this.
BLADE: I’ve never met her but she strikes me as very small. A bit of a waif, perhaps, even when she was younger.
TURNER: Oh, not the woman’s mind, honey. No, no, no. This is one of the strongest minds, with the most ruthless thinking. I mean, she’s so clear headed. She says, “To say this correctly and to some of us, myself included, correctness is a big ego point.” She’s very specific. It’s so amazing to see this brilliant mind who locks down details and chooses words so specifically, so exactly, that this mind could adapt and adopt a whole other way of thinking, of reality, it’s extraordinary.
BLADE: I was thinking more in physical terms. She seems rather demure and you seem so formidable. I only know the book, but it doesn’t strike me as obvious casting.
TURNER: Well certainly physically we’re not at all alike. She’s a tiny little thing, but this is not an imitation. I’m not pretending to be Joan Didion in that way. I just don’t really understand. You think I’ll be less believable for that reason? That they’ll expect to see some little waif?
BLADE: No, I just wondered if that sort of factored into your approach at all or where your head is in tackling this.
TURNER: No. I don’t think of Joan’s physicality at all.
BLADE: Great books don’t always adapt well to the stage. How do you feel this adaptation works?
TURNER: No, not necessarily at all, do they. I think the biggest challenge for this, of course, is the incredibly specific word choices that she makes. I really don’t want to fall into any pattern of approximation, of saying words like the words she chose. This is a huge challenge because there’s so much material but I believe there’s a real reason for her word choices. And part of the thing about magical thinking is that it doesn’t really make sense, some of it. It’s not exactly logical, so to follow it, to follow this path of thinking sometimes is a bit challenging.
BLADE: How does it feel returning to Arena?
TURNER: I love being back here, I really do. It’s just such high quality and I love the people. The production values are great, the people are terrific to work with. I actually really like Washington these days. And I’m happy to be here during the election season so that on my days off or during my days once we’re in performance, I might be able to, oh, I don’t know, raise a little hell you know?
BLADE: What was it like doing Molly Ivins during the last election cycle? That must have been fun.
TURNER: Oh, it was great are you kidding? We had to keep cramming in I don’t know how many seats we actually got into the theater. I think we broke all records and had to extend the run as I recall. It was great. I had a ball doing it.
BLADE: Are D.C. audiences different in any perceptible way?
TURNER: One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that D.C. audiences seem more integrated. I see more non-white, or whatever the correct wording would be, than I do in a lot of other theaters. I like that. It’s a professional class and not based on race.
BLADE: I’m almost certain you’re supporting Hillary, right?
TURNER: Of course I’m supporting Hillary. Anything else I think is absolutely unthinkable. I think she’ll be an extraordinary executive in chief. She’s proven that. It’s just such a bizarre time. I just read a wonderful column in the New York Times — I’m trying to think if it was David Brooks or who it was — but the point that seemed so perfect to me was that you can take a die-hard Donald Trump supporter and say, “Donald Trump said this, but here are the actual facts. You know, this is absolutely incorrect. It’s absolutely a lie” and the Trump supporter would probably say, “Well, I don’t feel it’s a lie.” Somewhere along the way in our time, how you feel became just as important as the actual facts or even the idea that they are equatable, you know? I just find that extraordinary, but it’s the only explanation I think.
BLADE: So is that a manner of magical thinking of its own perhaps? Is there a correlation there?
TURNER: There may be. But if you follow Joan’s path of coping, she exposes it to us as magical thinking and there I think is the difference because I don’t think they know they’re doing any sort of magical thinking.
BLADE: Where were you when you heard about the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage last year and how did you feel?
TURNER: I was home in New York City. I’m on the board of People for the American Way for, I think, 31 years now I’ve been working with them and we had a large effort out country wide to support this decision. It was thrilling. Absolutely thrilling.
BLADE: Does any filming experience stand out in your mind as especially memorable?
TURNER: Oh darling, all these years (laughs). Well I always used to love, before I got rheumatoid arthritis, I used to love doing as much of my own stunts as they would allow. I was always just throwing myself around. I always enjoyed things like the adventure films, you know. Things like “Romancing the Stone” or something, they were just such fun for me.
BLADE: How is your daughter and what is she doing these days?
TURNER: She is very well, thank you for asking. She has decided to go back to school and work on pre-law, she says.
BLADE: The line in “Serial Mom” where you berate the woman for her white shoes has become such a gay quotable line. How do you really feel about white shoes after Labor Day?
TURNER: (laughs) Actually no, I won’t wear white shoes after Labor Day. But more than that, I won’t wear white shoes period. I think it’s kind of upstaging. I don’t want people looking at my feet. I just don’t think they’re classy, frankly.