Toni Press-Coffman is not a cool, detached customer.

But she's about to play one on stage.

Press-Coffman portrays writer Joan Didion in Winding Road Theater Ensemble's "The Year of Magical Thinking." Didion adapted her best-selling memoir of the same name into a one-woman play.

"Magical Thinking" is Didion's account of how she emotionally survived the year after her husband died unexpectedly ("magical thinking" was key - you don't give his shoes away, for instance, as he'll need them when he returns). A social worker at the hospital dubbed her "a cool customer" when a doctor was concerned about giving her the news of her husband's death.

"I'm not a cool customer," says Press-Coffman, also a playwright and a self-professed openly emotional person.

"I can't imagine a social worker saying that about me."

Didion's story also touches on her daughter's death, two years after her husband's in 2003.

Her writing is spare, formal, she can seem detached. Her style juxtaposed against a story thick with grief, which is what "The Year of Magical Thinking" is, makes her incisive observations universal and poignant.

Here is Press-Coffman's take on the play and her approach to the Didion character.

Playing detached when you aren't

"It's beautifully written, and because I'm a writer, there's a way I connect to it that perhaps others wouldn't. That was my first way in (to the character). ...

"There's detachment in the script. She loses it at times ... so that helps. And her wit helps - she's very wry, and very human."

Understanding the grief

"All my life, I loved my mother profoundly. ... Before she died, I said 'I can't imagine being in a world where she doesn't exist.' When she died, I thought I would be hysterical, inconsolable. It wasn't like that; it was this constant absence. Even when you move and and accept it and are happy, that absence never goes away. I could really relate to that. ...

"The hardest part for me as an actor is that I have two kids. Once someone asked me what my one wish would be. It's that I die before both my children do, even if it means I die in the next 15 minutes."

How to separate your emotions from your character's

"Those moments have come up. When I start to feel something that's about Toni and not about the character, it's really a struggle. You have to make yourself be in the person. You can't be self-indulgent. But it is a struggle."

On doing a one-person show and learning more than 55 pages of dialogue

"It's pretty frightening. ... It does have a logical progression, but there are a lot of detours, and transitions that don't always work. I've tried to figure technical ways to help my memory kick in."

An attempt to say Didion's words exactly as written

"She's very, very precise. I want to say what she wrote. (It's hard because) there are a lot of tense changes - there's even a tense change in the middle of one of her sentences. (Word for word) feels like a lot of pressure. It's pretty scary."

Press-Coffman's hope

"...That the audience will feel some kind of fullness, or some kind of belief that things that are profoundly difficult can be overcome, and overcome in a way that's not devastating."

If you go

• What: Winding Road Theater Ensemble's production of "The Year of Magical Thinking."

• By: Joan Didion.

• Director: Christopher Johnson.

• When: Preview is 7:30 p.m. next Thursday, opening is 7:30 p.m. Aug. 30. Regular performances are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 15.

• Where: The Cabaret Theatre at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott. Ave.

• Cost: Preview is $15; all other performances $20, with discounts available.

• Reservations/information: 401-3626 or

• Running time: About 80 minutes, with no intermission.

• Cast: Toni Press-Coffman.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at or 573-4128.