Mary Beth Fisher
Mary Beth Fisher Credit: Janna Giacopo

On December 30, 2003, Joan Didion lost her screenwriting partner and husband of nearly 40 years, John Gregory Dunne. They’d just come home from visiting their daughter, Quintana Roo, who was lying unconscious in a Manhattan hospital ICU. Didion was making dinner and Dunne dropped dead of a coronary, just like that. If you already know the story, it’s probably because Didion made it the starting point for The Year of Magical Thinking, her best-selling memoir of coping with grief. Didion incorporated her daughter’s subsequent death into her stage version of the book, a 90-minute one-woman show that opened on Broadway in 2007, starring Vanessa Redgrave (whose own daughter, Natasha Richardson, died this past March).

Now Mary Beth Fisher will play the unnamed woman who is, as Ben Brantley of the New York Times put it, “blindsided by death,” in Court Theatre’s Chicago premiere production, directed by Charles Newell. A mainstay of local and regional theater who’s won praise for roles ranging from the tightly wound doctor in Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House to the unhinged doctor’s wife in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, Fisher is taking on a role that has to be a tour de force just to work. She opened our interview herself.

Isn’t it amazing and terrifying? [laughs]

I’m wondering how you’re going to go about it.

It’s obviously a gigantic chunk of memorization. I’m trying to get it word-perfect, because Joan Didion is so meticulous in how she constructs a sentence that a subtle shift of word can really impact the rhythm of a sentence, which impacts the emotional life that she’s creating. The text has these very interesting repetitions throughout, and they gain emotional momentum as they come up. They’re not just random. They’re building on each other. So it’s really important to get everything really accurate.

Charlie [Newell] and I had the great, great honor and pleasure of meeting her. She invited us to tea in her apartment in New York. It was incredibly informative. We were able to sit with her for an hour and a half and ask her questions about her intention with the text. The first thing she said to me was, “She’s different at the end than she is at the beginning.”

What do you think she meant by that?

What I’m finding is that [the character] has a tremendous sense of control at the beginning. She thinks that she has command of the experience, that she has passed through the experience, has a certain understanding about it and is able to speak about it. And then her narrative starts to unravel and her memories take her down emotional paths that she hasn’t sorted through or processed, so that by the end she has a more compassionate point of view toward herself than she does at the beginning, as well as a more compassionate and generous point of view toward her listener. It’s a very subtle thing.

More compassionate toward the listener?

She’s more instructive at the beginning: “This is what happened to me, so I know how this is going to go for you.” [But] after having discovered more about herself during the course of that 90 minutes, the cool instruction melts into a more universal embrace. She just extends herself more emotionally.

Reading the monologue, I thought it was more like a year of compulsive thinking than magical. She’s trying to hold on to this compulsive sense of control—and it’s more than she can handle. And John’s voice keeps coming back, saying, “Why don’t you let go?”

What’s so cool about that particular repetition is that at the beginning his voice pops in kind of unexpectedly. I think it surprises her. She hears it and notices it, but then dismisses it because right away she moves on to something that bugged her about how her daughter was being treated in the hospital, and complains about it and wants to fix it. That repetition only comes through five times in the play and yet it has incredible power because it’s the one voice, his voice, that keeps on saying, “Let it go. Why do you have to always be right? Let it go.” I think it’s the most important theme in the play.

She never actually comes out and says her daughter died.

She never uses the word “dead” with Quintana.

Did you discuss that with her?

It’s the one part of her life that she doesn’t want to talk about. You can get her talking about John, but I’ve never come across anything yet where she’ll talk about Quintana. It’s very different, and as you pointed out, she handles it very differently in the play. She uses the words dead, died, death so many times in relation to John, especially where she’s trying to get it into her own head that it’s actually true. But with Quintana she never uses that language.

Does that affect how you approach the role?

Joan doesn’t use the words, “This is how I felt about him, this is how I felt about her, and this is how it’s different.” But when you decode her use of language you can see, and perhaps if not see it, feel intuitively where she is in her heart. You can feel it as an actor. You can locate it in your body. You can feel how your own body is responding to the very way she constructs the language, and you can feel where it’s perhaps hitting a spot that’s so painful to speak about out loud that she finds language that avoids, and in the very avoiding expresses her depth of feeling.

The fact that she was capable of writing the book is quite an insight into her character.

She has a hardball quality with her subjects, and for her to be able to turn that on herself—it’s just really gutsy and it shows incredible intellect.

How did this come about for you?

Charlie handed me the script when I was in a technical rehearsal for The Wild Duck [in January 2009] and said, “Lemme know what you think about this.” And he put it in my lap upside down and walked away. And I turned it around and went, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” Because I’d actually seen Vanessa do it on Broadway and I knew what a difficult piece of material it was emotionally and technically and I’m so in awe of the writer that I felt this enormous sense of responsibility to get it right. My first response was, “This is too scary.” I’d never done a one-person show, and the thought that I would start with something this rich—well, the fact that it’s so rich is exciting. The fact that she’s so famous and people have such strong opinions about who she is and what they expect from Joan Didion, that’s a little scary.

Having just played Mary Todd Lincoln [last fall at Indiana Repertory Theatre, in James Still’s The Heavens Are Hung in Black] informed my research on Joan’s play. I was playing Mary Todd Lincoln in the year 1862, which was when she lost one of her children at the age of 12—and she’d already lost a child—and I read an amazing book by Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard, called This Republic of Suffering, which is about how the United States dealt with the problem of 660,000 dead bodies created by the Civil War. She also talks about the impact of [so much] death on people’s thinking, how it impacted religious thought in this country. At the beginning of the war we had an image of heaven as this place where you reunite with your heavenly father, but it was sort of nonspecific, and during the course of the Civil War preachers started preaching about a heaven that was far more personal, where your favorite books would be in a library and your piano would be there in the drawing room for you. It was responding to the needs of the living, that you could only bear these losses if you thought that your loved one was in a better place. [That’s] magical thinking. And when I was reading that book I thought, “What Joan is getting at is not that it’s about the end of a phase of your life. It’s something that everybody goes through and everybody will go through because that’s mortality. We’re all going to die.

Or survive someone.

We’re all going to survive a death and we’re all going there ourselves. And we tend not to think about it in this culture. We tend to push death away, and I think it’s a really important conversation. It takes a lot of compassion to even open the conversation with a group of people in a room in a theater and say, “Let’s talk about this thing that happens to all of us. And let’s talk about how we think about it and what our beliefs are and why they are that way.” It’s a beautiful, beautiful, powerful conversation.