A handful of people stepped onto an elevator to the 31st floor, making small talk as they are led into an apartment. It’s not unlike attending someone’s dinner party as a friend’s plus one—if the party happens to include seeing a solo performance by Obie Award winner Kathleen Chalfant, who is so close you can touch her. This is how director Jonathan Silverstein has conceived Keen Company’s site-specific production of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
Currently being staged in apartments, libraries, and community spaces across New York City, the production is the culmination of a longtime desire between Chalfant and Silverstein to stage the play adaptation of Didion’s memoirs. Playing through November 20, the work explores Didion’s sudden loss of her husband, the loss of her daughter a few years later, and the grieving process that followed. But how did it become this intimate experience? “I keep saying this was Jonny’s idea,” Chalfant shares very matter-of-factly.
The two met to discuss the production at Chalfant’s home, Silverstein recalls with a smile. “We sat in her kitchen,” he says. “She read it to me and made eye contact with me, and I was just blown away. And really, from that moment, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this has to be done intimately, and it has to be done in a home as if Joan is talking to you in in her home.’”
Fortunately, hosts were “easier than expected” to find, according to Silverstein. One of the hosts for the production is a board member for Keen Company—the night of the performance in her apartment, she sat on the couch along with her husband and daughter. Family friends of theirs acted as hosts for a performance in Gramercy Park the following week.
From there, it became a matter of logistics: site visits and sorting out dates. In one living room with sweeping views of the skyline and a close view of the Empire State Building, the team made sure to place Chalfant so the audience had their backs to any distracting nocturnal vistas. “Where there are those astonishing views, it's usually not such a good idea to have the audience looking at it—though it gives you something else to look at,” Chalfant jokes self-deprecatingly. “Together, we figure out the most inclusive—I think that's the best word—way to use the space."
The staging is simple, making use of the furniture and lighting already available in each space with minimal additions. Once the audience is seated in couches and chairs around the room, Chalfant enters the space dressed in a sweater and holding a copy of Didion’s book. Her only other props are a gold bracelet and a pair of sunglasses. Sitting in a chair, she is also lit by “three little lights with round shades that provide gentle lighting because, you know, older people, it's best that it doesn't come from the bottom,” Chalfant jokes.
Those lights highlight Chalfant in a room that is already well-lit by house lights. The audience can see the full depth of her performance, and Chalfant can see every fidget of an audience member’s hands, every scrunch of the eyes in laughter and empathy. The lighting reinforces the feeling of a casual dinner party. “We're all in the same light, so that it is a kind of conversation,” she says.
Because she can see the entire audience clearly, Chalfant notices when audience members drift away from the production, then when they return to it, as something hits close to home. But there is one reaction that’s a particular challenge: getting the audience to sometimes find the humor in Didion’s words. “When you're just talking about death, a lot of people think they're not supposed to laugh. So it's my job to give people permission to laugh,” she says.
Two other challenges Chalfant faces stem from the work of telling someone else’s true story of grief. One challenge is honoring Didion’s experiences without exploiting them. In such close quarters, Chalfant’s job is to play to a person sometimes as close as five feet away, not to the upper balcony. It’s a performance filled with small details—the precise and quick touch of the gold bracelet on her arm long before its meaning is revealed, the shifting in her seat before sharing a humorous insight in an otherwise difficult experience, the dropping of her eyes to the side before sharing a memory. “My job as an actor is to make the text live,” Chalfant explains. She ducks her chin a little as she searches for the right term to describe her process. “All the information you need to get through this event is in the text. We share humanity, and our experience will inform this work.”
Another challenge is how to play Didion; one audience member told Chalfant that she was “warmer than they imagined Joan Didion would have been,” as the actor recalls. “I realized I’m not doing an impersonation. It was immensely freeing.”
Chalfant’s shift away from impersonation can create a severe case of cognitive dissonance: of knowing Chalfant is relaying Didion’s experiences and not her own, but somehow still believing it is Chalfant’s story (after all, she never introduces herself as Joan Didion). Chuckling a little, Chalfant says, “It's a little like the experience of taking LSD. ‘I know this was induced by a drug,’ but it works in your brain like a real memory. You think, ‘I don't believe that trees have rainbows around them,’ but it has.”
Silverstein shares that the point of doing The Year of Magical Thinking in living rooms, and Chalfant’s at-home performance style, “was to bring it back to that storytelling by the fire,” he says. “This is really people gathering and connecting over a meaningful story about the human experience and connecting one-on-one with the storyteller.”
The fire is the thing; in the play, Didion returns to the idea of building a fire as a mark of safety. And yet, her experiences of massive loss contradict its symbolic power as she repeatedly tells the audience, “The details will be different, but it will happen to you.” Didion’s words are an inherently universal statement that bookends the play. What should the audience do with Didion’s warning? “I really hope that audiences take the experience of grief,” Silverstein says, “but also take the experience of living, and how important that is.”
And what better way to be reminded that you're alive, than to have Chalfant right beside you, looking you directly in the eyes?