A death in the family

A recent death adds fuel to Catherine Downes’ performance as Joan Didion. 

Catherine Downes is a hardened veteran of the stage, with four decades of experience acting, writing, and directing in theatre, film, and television, but The Year of Magical Thinking, she says, “is the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced as an actress.” 

Written by American journalist and novelist Joan Didion and based on her 2005 book, The Year of Magical Thinking is not a happy story – five days after Didion’s daughter Quintana Roo is rushed to the emergency room with pneumonia and septic shock, her husband of nearly 40 years, novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, collapses at the dinner table and dies.

Less than two years later, Quintana also dies – which Didion recounts in Blue Nights. The play is a hybrid of the books, a 90-minute monologue and meditation on death, more clinical than emotional as Didion deploys her journalistic skills to understand what has happened while also slipping into “magical thinking,” like not giving away her husband’s shoes because, she reasons, he’ll need them when he returns.

Downes was “quite scared” when director Susan Wilson offered her the role. “I thought, ‘That sounds hard in every way,’ and then I thought, ‘Just go there.’ There are few opportunities to seize such a challenge.”

She was finishing her role as Janet in the Circa run of Roger Hall’s A Shortcut to Happiness and transitioning to five weeks of rehearsals for Magical Thinking when she was recruited to continue playing Janet in Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Hall’s play. During the first week of juggling both plays, Downes’ father suddenly died.

The subject of grief became far more personal for the actress, who is seeing firsthand how magical thinking works as her family grapples with disposing of her father’s things.

“I haven’t really comprehended that he’s actually dead. It happened now four weeks ago. Some things are just too big for us to comprehend. It makes me feel that we’re just little people on this planet and there’s so much we don’t understand. What’s really going on, underneath, that’s magical thinking,” she says.

“I don’t want this to be a therapy exercise for me,” she laughs. “And it’s not, but at the same time I know what Joan’s talking about much more than if my father hadn’t died.”

She mentions that Vanessa Redgrave, who played the premier role in a Tony Award-nominating 2007 performance, lost her daughter Natasha, between seasons of the play and her understanding of the role subsequently changed.

“It’s not that I’m using my situation, but it’s helping me understand what’s happening to myself and my family,” says Downes.

“Possibly grief is the least understood word in the English language. We don’t know what it’s going to be like. It has nothing necessarily to do with tears.”

Bouncing between dancing in Hall’s comedy to holding the stage as the grief-stricken “cool customer” of Joan Didion has been easier than she expected. “They’re a relief from each other, and bloody good for the grey matter.”

Holding the stage alone for 90 minutes would be daunting to many, but Downes’ was primed by 20 years and about 1,000 performances of the one-woman play she wrote, The Case of Katherine Mansfield. Playing Didion is very different – she’ll be using an American accent because it suits the New York and Malibu milieus of the script – but, she says, “I don’t want to impersonate Joan. I think that’s a cheap way out.” Instead, she’s delved into the language and uncovered the metaphors that make this such a unique and illuminating portrayal of grief.

“It’s my job to guide myself and the audience through this journey that all of us have been on or go on. It’s a story that everybody in the world goes through.”

Originally published August 8, 2012 in Capital Times

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