'It's Very Lonely': Kathleen Turner Stars As Joan Didion In 'Magical Thinking'

Oct 16, 2016

"Do you know how many words there are in 80 minutes?" asks actress Kathleen Turner. "My god!"

Turner is referring to The Year of Magical Thinking, a play based on Joan Didion's 2005 memoir. The book was written while Didion's daughter was in a deep coma, and after her husband of 40 years suffered a fatal heart attack. In her role as Didion, Turner is the only one on stage. "It's very lonely," she says.

Rehearsing before opening night at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage, Turner strides across the bare rehearsal hall — confident, assured, pushing back her long, thick hair from time to time. (It's a sexy gesture — and a reminder of her breakthrough role in the torrid 1981 film Body Heat.)

And that voice! It's been described as "Cabernet-soaked" which is quite a departure from Didion's, which is much smaller, softer and slightly nasal. (You can hear an extended 2005 interview with Didion in the link audio link below.)

At age 81, Didion is bobby-pin thin. "She's a tiny little thing, right?" says Turner. "And I am anything but tiny, little or frail."

But if audiences come looking for Didion, they won't find her in this production.

"If people want just to have Joan Didion then they're going to have to forgive me," Turner says. "Because that's not what I'm doing."

This isn't about imitating Didion. This is about portraying a woman who is dealing with grief, and grasping for life. Facing unimaginable loss, she's strong, vulnerable and fierce as she struggles to banish self-pity.

"I went kind of crazy. I mean, I think everybody does," Didion says.

Didion's "magical thinking" had to do with the idea that her husband would somehow return. She gives away his shirts, pants and socks, but somehow, when it comes to throwing away his shoes, she can't bring herself to do it.

"After a moment's thought, she realizes the reason she can't do it is because he'll need them when he comes back," Turner says.

At 62, Turner has lived through losses that help her connect to this play.

"I really started on this exploration last year when my mother died," she says. "We were very close, and it was a good death, as it goes, you know. But I miss her very much and it does leave this, this absence that it's hard to grasp."

Magical thinking is "if" thinking, she says. "There's all this wonderful pretense, but it's not bad pretense. It's wishful, hopeful — but still completely misleading."

What do you do to get through the worst things that happen to you? Within two years, Didion lost her husband and their daughter. The play pays special attention to the daughter. It makes you ask: How can we protect the ones we love?

Turner has met the author at various events over the years but she hasn't discussed the drama with Didion or re-read the book on which it's based.

"I don't want to," Turner says. "You know, a good script, everything I need is in it — is in the script. I don't want to know too much — I don't want to know too much outside the script."

In Didion's story, Turner has found what she needs.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Her comatose daughter is on life support. Her beloved husband has a massive heart attack and dies. Joan Didion's book about death and her family's life became a best-seller in 2005. Her daughter, Quintana, and her novelist husband, John Gregory Dunne, were then the focus of a Broadway play. Now, Oscar and Tony Award-nominee Kathleen Turner is its star in a new production at Arena Stage here in Washington. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports on "The Year Of Magical Thinking."

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING")

KATHLEEN TURNER: (As Joan Didion) This is the wrong hospital. I think to myself that when John is stabilized I will have him moved...

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Kathleen Turner says it's a monster of a play, a mountain of sparely written words.

TURNER: You know how many words there are in 80 minutes? My, God.

STAMBERG: She's up there all by herself, no other cast members, just her.

TURNER: Lonely - it's very lonely.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING")

TURNER: (As Joan Didion) I go further. A plan falls into place.

G. T. UPCHURCH: You could still do the same amount of sipping, standing here and then turn and saying...

TURNER: OK, let's try.

STAMBERG: Rehearsing a week before opening night, Turner and her director G.T. Upchurch go over blocking, where to walk, how many sips of tea, when to sip them.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING")

TURNER: (As Joan Didion) I tell myself that when John is stabilized, I will move him to Columbia. He will need a bed with telemetry.

STAMBERG: As Joan Didion, Kathleen Turner strides across the bare rehearsal hall, confident, assured, pushing back her long thick hair from time to time - sexy gesture, a reminder of her breakthrough role in the torrid 1981 film "Body Heat." And that voice - Cabernet-soaked someone described it - so different from Didion's.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOAN DIDION: One day when I was talking on the telephone in his office, I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he'd always left open on the table by the desk.

STAMBERG: This is Didion from my 2005 interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DIDION: When I realized what I had done, I was stricken. What word had he last looked up? What had he been thinking? By turning the pages, had I lost the message?

STAMBERG: At age 81, Joan Didion is bobby-pin thin.

TURNER: I know she's a pin, a tiny little thing, right? And I am anything but tiny, little or frail.

STAMBERG: And there's something hypnotic about Didion's speech.

I want to talk to you about voice 'cause you've got - you have one of the most noteworthy voices in life. Joan Didion - she's got a very soft voice.

TURNER: Yeah.

STAMBERG: And there's a little - there's almost the edge of a whine to it.

TURNER: Yeah.

STAMBERG: And kind of nasal - so different from yours.

TURNER: Yeah, so different - so different. I, you know, I just can't - I just, you know, if people want just to have Joan Didion, then they're just going to have to forgive me because that's not what I'm doing.

STAMBERG: She's not imitating Didion. She is portraying a woman who is dealing with grief and grasping for life - strong and vulnerable, fierce sometimes. She struggles to banish self-pity as she faces unimaginable loss - the daughter in a coma, the husband, dead. She has a year of magical thinking about a message in an open dictionary and doing things so he would return.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DIDION: Yeah, I went kind of crazy. I mean, I think everybody does.

TURNER: She gives away his T-shirts and his sweatpants and socks and his Brooks Brothers shorts. But when she goes to throw away his shoes, she stops, and she realizes she can't do it. And then after a moment's thought, she realizes the reason she can do it is because he'll need them when he comes back.

STAMBERG: At 62, Kathleen Turner has had losses that help her connect to this play.

TURNER: I really started on this exploration last year when my mother died. We were very close, and it was a good death as it goes, you know, but I miss her very much. And it does leave this absence that - it's hard to grasp, you know? So this became more of a universal search for me. You know, the magical thinking is if thinking. If we sacrifice the virgin, then the rain will come, you know, kind of thing. So there's all this wonderful pretense, but it's not - it's not bad pretense. It's wishful, hopeful, but it's still completely misleading.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING")

TURNER: (As Joan Didion) You think you see it straight, but you won't - no. You'll be standing in the ER, and on one level, you'll have a pretty clear idea of whatever it was that just happened. But you'll see it as a kind of first draft.

STAMBERG: What do you do to get through the worst things that happened to you? Within two years, Didion lost her husband and their daughter. The play pays special attention to the daughter. How can we protect the ones we love? Kathleen Turner has met the author at various events over the years, but she hasn't discussed the drama with Didion or reread the book on which it's based.

TURNER: Yeah, not recently, I don't want to. You know, a good script, everything I need is in it, is in the script. I don't want to know too much. I don't want to know too much outside the script.

STAMBERG: The script is Joan Didion's, based on her memoir. Kathleen Turner is performing "The Year Of Magical Thinking" at Arena Stage until late November. In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.