“At its heart, this is a story about deep love,” says Pamela Abernethy about The Year of Magical Thinking, the inaugural offering of Verona Studio’s fourth theater season. “It’s about the love between a husband and wife, and between a mother and her daughter. It’s a quintessentially human story.”
The play is also, Abernethy says, “tender, joyful, funny and wry.”
The Year of Magical Thinking was written by American novelist, screenwriter and literary journalist Joan Didion, based on her 2005 award-winning, best selling memoir of the same name. It is a work shaped by stories and revelations that were sparked by the December 2003 death of Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, succeeded by the death of their only child, Quintana Roo Dunne, in August 2005.
Didion is a highly recognized writer, receiving numerous awards that include in 2012, a National Medal of Humanities from the White House. The Year of Magical Thinking play has had sold-out runs on Broadway and in London, and the one-performer work has been produced for noted actresses around the world since 2007.
At Verona Studio, Abernethy will be the sole cast member, playing Joan Didion. She is a retired Marion County Court judge who has acted and directed in theater for more than 30 years, including participating in over 25 productions at Pentacle Theatre. She has personally enjoyed Didion’s work, both fiction and non-fiction, for decades.
“In something I read about her,” says Abernethy, ”Joan Didion said, ‘marriage and motherhood were, for me, a kind of salvation.’ At the time that statement surprised me, but in doing the play it was clear how central were the details of domestic live to this icon of American literature.”
In the course of their 40-year marriage, Didion and her husband worked together frequently, collaborating on feature screenplays and other projects, and individually writing critically acclaimed bestselling books. So it is no surprise that The Year of Magical Thinking is crafted with extraordinary precision and the dialogue is, as one reviewer called it, “exhilarating.”
“Of course the language is very well written,” says Abernethy, “and it’s so enjoyable to learn these words and see how she crafts these amazing sentences… To sit together with some 60 people and go on this journey with Didion, and follow her shifting emotions and her reactions to the loss of the two loves of her life – will be really special.”
The play is directed by Jo Dodge, long familiar to Salem audiences after directing 41 productions with Pentacle Theatre over the last 37 years. Dodge acted, directed and taught theater in New York, Los Angeles, and Honolulu but says she never experienced true community theater until she came to Salem. “And I fell in love,” she says. “I went down that path at Pentacle Theatre.”
In addition to being accomplished performers and directors, Abernethy and Dodge have been best friends since 1981.
“Didion now famously called a  collection, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live,” Abernethy says. “Not only is this play surprising, it has raw humor, telling the delightful way Joan and John were as young parents, the kind of marriage they had… They were truly a match for each other. It’s a funny play, looking back at how the three of them were together.”
The Year of Magical Thinking is the third one-actor production at the Verona Studio, since Blonde Poison in March 2015 and St. Nicholas last December, both shows receiving strong critical notices. “When I was invited to play this role,” says Abernethy, “I said, ‘yes, yes, how many times can I say yes!’”
Among myriad subjects, the play reflects on how the experience of death used to be part of most people’s lives, but now occurs in an antiseptic way, closed off from daily life. Modern society, Didion says, has ‘hospitalized’ death.
But the story is most fully an examination of love, say Abernethy and Dodge. In the course of experiencing The Year of Magical Thinking, Abernethy adds, audiences “more deeply understand a 40-year marriage, the love between a husband and wife and what it truly means to be a parent. But the play also gives us permission to have a 360 degree understanding of what it means to be human.”
The Year of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion, based on her memoir
Starring Pamela Abernethy
Directed by Jo Dodge
September 15, 16, 17, 23, 24, 30
and October 1 at 8:00pm
September 24 & October 1,
matinee at 2:00pm
The Verona Studio
Reed Opera House
189 Liberty St NE, Suite 215