Vanessa Redgrave Explores Grief On Stage

Actress Vanessa Redgrave and author Joan Didion make an appearance at The Cuny Graduate Center to speak at The New York Times Art and Leisure Weekend on January 5, 2007 in New York City.

Broadway these days is awash in mindless fun: Tarzan and his apes shriek through trees, a syrupy British nanny lectures her precocious charges, and bygone Swedish pop stars pulsate on stage.

But now for something completely different: this week's opening of "The Year of Magical Thinking," starring veteran actor Vanessa Redgrave.

Redgrave is the entire cast of this demanding one-person play based on author Joan Didion's prize-winning memoir.

"I can't believe my presumption in — I suppose, in ringing her to say, if she ever thought of it, could she consider me," Redgrave told 48 Hours correspondent Susan Spencer.

But it's easy to see why an actor would be drawn to this powerful material.

Didion's spare, matter-of-fact book chronicles the year following the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, who suffered a massive heart attack as the two were talking over dinner in their New York apartment.

"I had to write it down," Didion said. "I can't think unless it's in terms of writing."

Didion is known for her insightful social commentary, and in both her book and the play she reports on her own tragedy and exposes how we all deal with life and death.

"'Is this the wife?' he said to the driver. Then he looked at me. 'I'm your social worker.' And I guess that's when I knew. That's something else to remember: If they give you a social worker, you're in trouble," Redgrave says in the play.

"Vanessa's delivery of that line is fantastic," Didion said.

When it came to coping, Didion was in very deep trouble indeed, which Redgrave's restrained performance makes very poignant.

"I could not give away his shoes," Redgrave says in her portrayal of Didion. "I stood there a moment and then I realized why. He would need his shoes if he was to return."

"I was crazy," Didion said.

That's where "The Year of Magical Thinking" comes in.

"I discovered that, literally, I was holding two contradictory ideas in my mind at the same time. One was that he was dead," Didion said. "And the other was that he would come back. And I don't mean come back in some — I'm not talking about religious resurrection. I'm talking about come back. Walk in the door. Wondering why I had given away his shoes, you know?"