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Theatre Review: The Year of Magical Thinking | City Theater Company

City Theater Company (CTC) returns to the stage in 2023 with the one-woman autobiographical The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. The play is based on her bestselling memoir of the same name and stars Mary Catherine Kelley in the titular role.The production takes place in the cozy Wings Black Box at The Delaware Contemporary (TDC) on the Wilmington Riverfront.


Adapted by the author for Broadway in 2007, the award-winning play is a riveting and heartfelt elegy that expands on the book, which won the National Book Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.The work explores Didion’s grief following the deaths of her husband John Gregory Dunne and daughter Quintana Roo.


In what amounts to an extended soliloquy, Didion recounts her journey of loss, perseverance, and hope by using her signature wit to draw an intimate portrait of the resilience of the human heart. Kelley is moving as Didion…taking the audience with her as she flutters between recounting good times and lamenting the present without her loved ones. It’s not an easy line to walk, but Kelley deftly brings you inside Didion and her family. The lack of stage microphones heightens the intimacy as we hear every quiver in Kelley’s voice and each bold statement of resilience.


The production is directed by CTC Artistic Director Kerry Kristine McElrone, who has opted for simplicity and straightforwardness in her guidance of the action. Kelley isn’t asked to more than be human and share Didion’s complex thoughts on death and dying. That’s no small task, but by getting down to basics, the message becomes more powerful.


Kudos to set designer Rick Neidig and lighting man Stuart Thomas for keeping things simple and effective, like McElrone with her direction.


The play starts with death and ends with death, but there is joy interwoven in Didion’s words. “I love you more than one more day” is a sort of mantra recalling the special bond between lost husband and daughter. These aren’t distant figures, but spirits you feel are in the theater with you. Kelley was powerful when describing how she would brush “Q-Roo’s” hair and repeatedly brought up her daughter’s ever-changing locks.


Back in 2007, the New York Times called The Year of Magical Thinking “a report back from an emotional abyss, yet for all its intensity, it isn’t grim or overwrought. It’s rigorously self-scrutinizing, dryly self-mocking, fairly stunned-somehow both unsentimental and consumed with love.”


So what exactly is “magical thinking,” according to Didion? The play mentions anthropological ties to mysticism, but from the stage action it seems to be more of a modern optimistic reality. The script takes on a better pace at the first inkling that Didion truly recognizes a death in her immediate family – stepping out of initial denial. She continues to revisit better times and sometimes felt her loved ones were still with her, but as the dialog progresses, the audience realizes that Didion has come to a sort of acceptance. It’s a powerful journey that is navigated with aplomb by CTC.


Winner of the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction, The Year of Magical Thinking is one of many celebrated books by Joan Didion. She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which awarded her its 2005 Gold Medal in nonfiction. She also received the 1996 Edward MacDowell Medal, the 1999 Columbia Journalism Award, and the 2002 George Polk Book Award.


CTC’s mission is to create a body of work that takes risks and breaks barriers — just as TDC’s is to take risks and push boundaries. Both institutions are invested in promoting the work of local and emerging artists, advancing opportunity and growth by and for the community, and welcoming all those looking to experience art.


The Year of Magical Thinking will run Friday and Saturday nights through February 18. Curtain is at 8:00pm and run time is approximately 100 minutes without an intermission. City Theater Company’s home is at The Delaware Contemporary located at 200 South Madison, Wilmington, DE 19801. Tickets ($30-45) can be purchased at the box office or online. Special ticket pricing is available for military personnel and students.


Please call the box office at (302)220-8285 or email info@city-theater.org for details.


Photo by Jim Coarse/Moonloop Photography



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