Catherine Downes could never have known when she took on a play about mourning that she would soon be going through a grieving process of her own.
The week before rehearsals for The Year of Magical Thinking began, Downes suddenly lost her own father.
'He was an old man, and he was an ailing man, but we didn't realise that he was sick, and it was a surprise.' While the rational voice in her mind whispered that it was probably his time to go, the grieving process continued.
'Grief is completely different from how we imagined it to be,' she says. 'Now I believe that grief is probably the least understood word in the English language. We don't actually know what journeys we go on until it happens to you.'
The Year of Magical Thinking is based on the award-winning book by American writer Joan Didion on her own journey of grieving during the year her husband of almost 40 years died unexpectedly at the dinner table. The play was adapted by Didion herself. But, says Downes, there are some differences between the play and the book. For one, Didion included her daughter Quintana in the play.
Quintana, who awoke from a coma to find her father had died, passed away just after Didion finished writing the book. But most fundamentally, there's a different intention behind the play and the novel. 'The play is a very personal engagement with the audience, while the book is a very personal engagement with herself and her own experience.'
It was Didion's writing that initially appealed to Downes. 'Joan Didion's mind is like a scalpel. She takes no prisoners, and the main prisoner that she doesn't take is herself.'
But the play isn't a book reading. With the use of her 'flexible stage', the scenes are transformed from Manhattan apartment to a boat ride down the Styx. 'I'm going on a visceral exploration of what's going on, rather than sitting on a chair and reporting it.' Though Downes adopts an American accent in the play to make sense of the American vernacular, she is not trying to imitate Didion.
Otherwise, she says, the audience may as well watch Didion at a lecture. 'It's really important to me that the play isn't just about some American person, or isn't just about Joan Didion. I want it to be a universal story, and I just happen to be the actor.'
The universal nature of the story is - sadly - reinforced by the grief that seems to shadow the play. As well as Downes' own loss, actress Vanessa Redgrave, who performed the play in New York, lost her daughter Natasha before an encore concert.
When the idea of performing The Year of Magical Thinking was first raised, Downes was terrified, challenged, and privileged. Now, she's still challenged and privileged, but she finds the play exhilarating. 'It's about living. As Joan says, it's about wanting, living, and going with the change.
"It's about getting in the water and not being afraid of the tides and the currents, but actually going with it and learning how to live, and celebrating the changes in our journey through life.'
She wants the audience to find the play similarly exhilarating, and emerge from the theatre exclaiming, 'Wow, that was an extraordinary wave, but we rode it together. We were scared of it and we thought we were going to go under, and we nearly did, but then we came out the other side.'
The most profound thing she's taken from the play is a deeper understanding of grief, and how it's nothing like she expected it to be.
'I know that Dad's gone, I know that he's passed away, but I can't quite say the word 'dead' yet. He doesn't quite feel dead. And working with The Year of Magical Thinking, I understand a bit more of what is going on for me. That's quite big, but it's far, far more than just being a handy little exercise for me and what I'm going through.
'Grief is nothing how we imagine it to be, and this play isn't, either.'
The Year of Magical Thinking, directed by Susan Wilson, Circa Two, August 11-September 8.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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