"[On one level] she was playing along with the world and saying, 'Yes, he's dead.' And she went to a funeral, and she allowed obituaries to be published," the play's director David Hare said. "And she did everything she could to pretend that she admitted he was dead. But in her deepest self — she did not believe he was dead."
Adding to Didion's struggle at the time her husband died, her only child, Quintana, lay fighting for her life in the hospital with a massive infection.
"When we saw her tonight in the ICU, her hair was damp and matted from the fever," Redgrave said. "I've been trying to brush her hair since the day after Christmas, but cannot. I've always been able to brush her hair."
Within 2 years, Quintana also died at age 39. The book ended with John's death; the play includes Quintana's.
"If I'm sane, what happened to me could happen to you," Redgrave says in the play.
"I mean the tragedy of Joan's experience of bereavement was that all the qualities that she has as a person were those that were least-suited to dealing with grief," Hare said.
A grief that is all the more touching because falling apart is just not something Didion does.
"She's a rather controlling person," Hare said. "She's a person who likes to organize experience. She's very brilliant intellectually. None of those things were of any use to her when she encountered the death of her husband and the death of her daughter."
Portraying Didion's rising panic is a demanding part, but over her long career, Redgrave has had her share of demanding parts, from the cool London swinger Jane in "Blowup," to transsexual Renee Richards in "Second Serve," to crime boss Max in "Mission Impossible," and dancer Isadora Duncan in "Isadora."
Redgrave admits that as a kid she dreamed of dancing with a group called "the Terry Juveniles."
"They did routines, dance routines, acrobatics and tap dancing and things," she said. "That was my ambition. That's what I wanted to do. I didn't want to be an actress. I wanted to be a Terry Juvenile!"
In fact, today she's one of a handful of performers ever to win an Emmy, a Tony and an Academy Award. The daughter of renowned stage actor Michael Redgrave, her own daughters Joely and Natasha Richardson have carried on the family theatrical tradition.
In the past, Redgrave was almost as famous for her outspoken leftist politics as for her acting. But not this time. There is no political agenda in "Magical Thinking" — just Redgrave, now 70, on stage for one hour and 30 minutes with few props, no intermission and no safety net.
"I won't be up here alone," she said. "I'll have the audience out there, in the seats, sharing this with me."
Spencer met up with Redgrave and Hare backstage after a preview performance both agreed was her best so far.
"When I don't make mistakes, which I often do, it communicates in a most extraordinary way," she said.
The biggest challenge is conveying what Hare called Didion's precision which she used to "keep the world at bay."
Hare seems protective of both his star and his author, and rehearsals never have gone more than four hours. Didion hasn't missed one.
"I think I will be glad when this period is over," she said. "However, it's not as if I'm putting myself through something that would otherwise be forgotten by me. I mean, I don't think of the character as myself. I mean, it is me theoretically. But I don't think of it as — it's a character. I don't think of her as me."
Opening night is this week, which of course will mean reviews — but Redgrave said she isn't striving to please.
"You have to be striving to get at the heart of the matter," she said.