Dorothy Ann Gould stars in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a play about bereavement. Picture: TWITTER
Dorothy Ann Gould stars in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a play about bereavement. Picture: TWITTER

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

So begins the US writer Joan Didion’s haunting memoir of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The unexpected event ended a partnership of 40 years, just days after their only child, Quintana, had fallen dangerously ill and slipped into a coma.

During the New York promotion of her memoir, Quintana became seriously ill again. Following massive brain surgery, she died at the age of 39.

The famed theatre director David Hare asked Didion to transform her memoir into a play and, six months after her second tragedy, she began working on the play.

It is said that The Year of Magical Thinking is a journey through that most universal experience of human pain: bereavement. While it is frequently harrowing, it is also often amusing and has been described as an expression of the power love has to give life meaning. That description is what struck director Mark Graham Wilson and actor Dorothy Ann Gould.

How much can one person take? That’s the question Gould asked herself when reading the memoir. "We all cope differently, but we all encounter these kinds of tragedies at some point in our lives."

It is the way that Didion thinks, the way she escapes and the way she writes that makes this such a harrowing yet healing experience.

Watching Graham Wilson and Gould at work, the detail and thought that goes into every breath, the way they battle one another to get to the truth, is extraordinary and the stuff theatre is made of.

"It’s the scale of the mountain of loss that’s daunting," says Gould as she wonders about Didion’s husband’s death.

She believes he just "let go of the fence" because he couldn’t cope with the sadness of his daughter’s coma. "Some people do that, and I think he told Joan that he was going, he warned her. But she wasn’t listening."

Gould was also affected by the ordinary circumstances in which tragedy occurs, spelled out in the opening stanzas of Didion’s marvellous text.

"She goes on a big journey with this lament but because she’s deprecating and wry, it is bearable to witness," Gould explains. She sees the games Didion plays with her mind to cope with the tragedies, something she recognises.

"Joan wills things to turn around, believes she can shift reality with her strong will."

For Graham Wilson, one of the joys of the text is its perfection. "There’s not a word you want to cut, not a word out of place," he says.

Gould’s solo performance requires her to memorise 62 pages of monologue. She started that task earlier than she would have normally because she knew how important it was to get to a point where she didn’t have to think about what she was saying.

It’s all in the text. The tension is held in what is being said, says Graham Wilson, and what is as important is what is left unsaid. That is why every word in the text is so important. "It isn’t a conventional play," he says.

Both artists are risk takers, daring with their art and pushing the boundaries.

Gould feels safe with Graham Wilson because they have worked successfully together before and that allows her to step beyond her comfort zone.

For Graham Wilson, returning to stage after many years of writing television soapies, this project is terrifying, but in the best sense of the word.

It’s an exciting and beautiful play written by a woman who has an extraordinary ability to express her deepest feelings in a most unusual fashion.

Gould has all these qualities, which is why this is such a heavenly match.

"I have to channel her [Didion’s] energy of thought," says Gould about the process.

She returns to the rehearsal to grapple with meaning and movement. The words flowing as if they are her own. And she takes flight.