Grief can be all consuming, powerful.
In the case of writer Joan Didion, it was paralyzing. It also led to her profoundly moving and deeply personal book, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” in which she recounts, in gorgeous prose, her husband’s sudden death and its aftermath.
Didion also penned the play based on the book, which Winding Road Theater Ensemble opened Friday.
Much of what she wrote in the book is in the play, but she added on the story of her daughter’s death just two years later, shortly after the book was published. The great numbing weight of her grief and the efficient way she handled it in order to survive — gathering records, making arrangements, keeping her husband’s shoes in case he returned — became more vivid, universal, next to her terse writing style.
That didn’t translate to the play, which underscores Didion’s distance and robs us of the profundity of her journey.
Christopher Johnson directed this one-woman production, with Toni Press-Coffman in the Didion role.
Press-Coffman did not have an easy job. The play, peppered with humor and compelling stories from the author’s life with her husband and daughter, is gloriously wordy. There were some silences, but they were few. The actress never got a rest.
A play like this has the potential to become stagnant, and Johnson tried to fight this by moving Press-Coffman around the stage quite a bit, from an easy chair on one end, to an empty stage with a spotlight on her on the other. The trouble is there was much motion without purpose.
Press-Coffman clearly felt the script deeply, and her honey voice has a tendency to soothe. She opens with the words “This happened on Dec. 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you. And it will happen to you.” It’s a powerful line, and it and the following text are delivered with a warmth that doesn’t seem quite in sync with Didion’s cool writing style. Too, Press-Coffman’s lack of modulation in her voice became a bit too lulling
The result is a play that seems longer than it is, and that fights to hold our attention at times. But there’s a moment toward the end, when she picks up the book and reads directly from it, that becomes riveting.
And it reminds us that we have been hearing Joan Didion’s words as she has taken us through this journey we all will take. A little bit of restlessness is well worth that.