Forty years ago, my father, Lester Leib, was killed in an auto accident caused by a driver who had just had an argument with his wife. This angry driver — who also died — lost control of his car on one of the bridges in downtown Tampa and hurtled directly into my father’s station wagon, which was stopped at a red light. My father was 52 at the time, in good health, happily married, and those of us in his immediate family — my mother, my sister, and myself — were devastated by the loss. How could this vital, formidable figure, whom we loved deeply and consistently, suddenly disappear, for no good reason, as if by mere chance? What kind of world were we in that could impose on us such an event? I was a sophomore in college at the time, but nothing I had learned could prepare me for this sort of terrible and long-lasting shock. How does one make sense of the senseless?
I thought often of this personal tragedy as I watched Joan Didion’s eloquent, anguished The Year of Magical Thinking in a dress rehearsal at the Studio@620. Didion went through a terrible trauma in the mid-2000s: First her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, keeled over at dinner, the victim of a cardiac failure; then not long after, their only daughter, Quintana, was killed by a mysterious ailment that had her in and out of hospitals. Didion’s one-woman play — based on her best-selling memoir — is about her reaction to the two deaths, the kind of irrational thinking she found herself doing afterward, her desperate attempts to “manage” the unmanageable, and her memories of the husband and daughter she loved. The play is hypnotically honest, and, as performed by Roxanne Fay, intense, searing, chastening. No attempt is made to soften the blows received by the unprepared author; there’s no expedient decision to remember only the good, to turn her attention to new vistas, to find some illusive bright side. There’s only the stunned utterances of the desolated, baffled survivor and her writer’s impulse to examine and commemorate. In her puzzlement and candor she speaks for anyone who’s gone through a similar misfortune.
As for the “magical thinking” of the title, it refers to Didion’s repeated conviction that her deceased husband wasn’t really gone, that he’d return to her side if only the right conditions were met — if she left his shoes undisturbed, or if she saw Quintana through her illness safely. “I needed to be alone so that he could come back,” she says, but when she admitted publicly that Dunne had passed on, the announcement, to her surprise, didn’t resurrect him. “Maybe it takes time,” she thinks, because “he does not look as if he needs to be dead.”
But soon the conviction that her husband will revive is overtaken by her fear for her daughter, who at various times is in a coma, in septic shock, in hospitals on both coasts, suffering from massive bleeding in her brain. And Didion, already known for her shell-shocked prose long before these tragedies, finds herself trying to shrink the words “motherless child” into a newspaper crossword, or musing on “the way the children were playing on the swings as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.” That’s one of the great virtues of Magical Thinking: It records Didion’s encounter with what Camus called “the absurd” with the sort of sharp detail that most sufferers can’t muster under such circumstances, or even later. And though she eventually realizes that “I was in fact in freefall,” she still retains the expressive power to describe that fall graphically.
Fay’s acting is terrific. Directed beautifully by Bob Devin Jones, dressed in a long black skirt and gray sweater, she is at one moment holding back tears, at another smiling wistfully, a little later sharply angry. On a large white platform furnished with only one wooden chair, nothing she does is ever excessive or melodramatic. She is somehow mostly quiet — and the effect is riveting. This is a woman who’s faced an unthinkable disaster and is running on emergency generator. The calamity is in Fay’s face, in her every move. Her performance is as deeply “true” as any I’ve seen.
About my father: All these years later, I have something Didion clearly lacks: the belief in a merciful, just God who will ultimately redress all wrongs — even this shocking loss. But that doesn’t mean we don’t miss him. When Lester Leib died, something huge happened to my family and me, something we never got over. There have been many good days since, many joys and great pleasures. But a certain distress remains, an absence not to be filled. And nothing since he vanished has ever been quite right.