The Year of Magical Thinking


The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion

Presented at the Edmonton Fringe Festival

Holly Turner

Directed by Wayne Paquette
Stage Managed by Kerry Johnson


VUE WEEKLY – Scott Harris

Local lawyer-turned-actor Holly Turner presents a moving rendition of Joan Didion’s deeply personal account of the death of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, and the long illness and eventual passing of her daughter, Quintana. Flawlessly delivered by Turner, sitting alone on a stage decorated only with delicately lit hanging fabric, the monologue, full of mental attempts at detachment and struggles to control uncontrollable situations, speaks powerfully to the myriad ways we deal—and our minds attempt to find ways to avoid dealing—with death, loss and remembering.

5 out of 5 stars



The Year of Magical Thinking, taken from the bestseller by Joan Didion (Play It As It Lays/True Confessions/Up Close and Personal), is something of a magical theatre experience.

The play, which was written by Didion from her book, is both a detailed examination and a devastating emotional voyage brought on by the death of her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunn. He slumped over at the table one night and was gone.

Didion, the writer, is skeptical, ironic and obsessed over the details — reading up on death, examining records (even the autopsy report), going back over conversations to see if there was some kind of hint of what was to come.

Finding nothing that seems to comfort her, she embarks on her “year of magical thinking.” She knows the facts but refuses to accept them. Aboriginals would say, “if…”

“If I sacrifice this virgin, then the volcano won’t explode.” She reasons (if that is the word) that if she doesn’t throw out her husband’s shoes, if she doesn’t return to their familiar places, if she follows some form of ritual, somehow he will be there. Yes, she knows she’s skirting madness and will later admit it.

The drama is heightened by the alarming illnesses of her daughter during that period — an event not in the book.

Despite the detail, there is not an ounce of fat, self-pity or easy melodrama. Not a lot of humour either, but Didion is a brilliant writer and illuminates her experience with such controlled emotion and expressive intellect that she holds you. Perhaps it’s the raw pain obvious just below the surface.

The play takes the form of a one-woman show.

Holly Turner is flawless at navigating the destabilizing gulf between tough investigative reporter and wounded human being.

Wayne Paquette’s direction is shaded and non-invasive.

The production is staged in front of three drapes that move gently to some unseen wind. The lights change subtly and the director’s almost invisible touch leaves the focus on the solo performer.

In such hands, that which was once words on paper, becomes a powerful, engrossing theatrical experience.

5 out of 5 Stars.


SEE MAGAZINE – Paul Matwychuk

“She’s a cool customer”.  That’s how a hospital staffer describes Joan Didion after the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.  Certainly that’s the popular image of Didion, the thin, ice-blonde chronicler of West Coast alienation and anomie.

But the precise, intellectual prose of The Year of Magical Thinking, her bestselling memoir about losing not just her husband but her daughter Quintanna within the same year, is all the more affecting because of the way Didion keeps her emotions in check, how even when she describes giving into “the vortex” and becoming overwhelmed with memories of her marriage, she does so in words as pure and piercing as an icicle.

In this stage adaptation of the book – surely one of the swiftest Broadway to Fringe transfers in history – Holly Turner isn’t just a dead ringer for Didion (especially when she wears those enormous Didion sunglasses), but she captures the way her fierce intelligence wars with her superstitious conviction that if only she performs the right rituals, she’ll bring her loved ones back to her.  “I’m telling you what you need to know,” she says.  It’s painful, but we’re grateful to hear it.

4 1/2 out of 5 Stars.



I can`t image there`s a more harrowing 90 minutes to be had at the Fringe this year than this powerhouse performance by theatre vet Holly Turner.

In a way, the material can`t miss.  Joan Didion`s stage adaptation of her best-selling memoir guarantees fiercely intelligent writing and we get that, in spades, with this searing examination of life`s tendency to change, in an instant, and send us reeling.

`Have you noticed?`Turner asks, reliving an almost unfathomably shocking period in Didion`s life six years back.  `The way people always describe the ordinary nature of the circumstances in which the disaster occurred? The clear blue sky from the plane fell.  The way the children were playing on the swings as usual when the rattlesnakes struck from the ivy?`

For Didion, the tumble into the vortex began on Dec. 30, 2003.  She and her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, had just returned to their Manhatten apartment from a visit to the hospital.  They`d been visiting their only daughter, Quintana, who had been placed by doctors into an induced coma after falling into a septic shock from a runaway pneumonia infection.  While the couple were talking over supper, Didion`s husband slumped over his plate, dying so suddenly that for a moment his wife mistook the event for a failed joke.

The Year of Magical Thinking, directed by Wayne Paquette, recounts Didion`s struggle with grief and bewilderment that follows from that shock, and the subsequent double whammy of her daughter`s roller-coaster illness.  Turner – whose Edmonton bona fides track back to 1968 when she was recruited by the Citadel`s first artistic director, Bob Glenn – captures the perfect pitch of a witty, no-nonsense woman who has grown accustomed to having the last word in life, but so desperately does not want it now.

Moving, funny and quite spellbinding, this story will strike close to the bone for anyone who`s ever grappled with that tricky distinction between how something terrible happened, and why.

4 out of 5 Stars.


SEE MAGAZINE – Marliss Weber

The Year of Magical Fringeing – August 13-19, 2009

Holly Turner was a Broadway actor, then a tax lawyer.  Now she’s playing Joan Didion in her first-ever Fringe show, The Year of Magical Thinking.

It sounds like the set up to a classic joke: what’s the difference between an actor and a tax expert?

Some might say the actor knows more loopholes.  But the local performer Holly Turner will tell you: not much. Because Holly Turner is both a Broadway-bred actor and lawyer cum Federal Department of Justice tax expert.

And interestingly, in her mind, her two careers are not unrelated.  “Tax is all about the puzzle,” she says. “All about figuring it out.”  Not unlike unlocking a character’s inner intentions.

But Turner’s keen and attractive eyes light up at the mere mention of most people’s least favorite subject. “Oh, tax is fascinating,” she says.
“It  was my favorite subject in law school.” Which prompted her to also get her masters in tax in the mid-80’s.

But Turner’s first and enduring love has always been the theatre.  She was partway through an English lit degree when she announced to her parents that she wanted to move to New York and study acting. “My parents took it well,” she says with a smile.  “Well my father did.  My mother was fortunately out of the country at the time.”

And before anyone could talk her out of it, Turner moved to New York city and enrolled in the famed Neighborhood Playhouse. The school had turned out such greats as Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton, and Turner was thrilled to study under Stanford Meisner, a legend in New York theatre scene.

Turner’s training paid off.  Immediately upon graduation from the Neighborhood Playhouse, Turner landed the role of Henry Fonda’s daughter in the Broadway show Generations. “It was the oddest, flukiest, craziest thing,” says Turner.  “It just so happened that they were looking for an upper-middle-class, slightly hippie-ish girl, and I was that girl.” So, the first time Turner was ever paid to act was opposite Henry Fonda.  On Broadway.

The show ran for nine months, which perhaps lent a sense of security that a career in theatre doesn’t usually provide.  And after that initial success, Turner had a string of decent roles in regional and touring companies.  It was her role in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park that caught the eye of Bob Glenn, who was Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre’s first artistic director.  He offered her a role in Hedda Gabler, which was enough to bring her to Edmonton for the first time.

“I’ll never forget my first winter here,” she says, shivering involuntarily despite the summer heat.  “The weather didn’t get above minus-30 Fahrenheit for three weeks.  I was sure I’d die.”

And Turner came to a city with an equally cold theatre scene.  At the time, the only theatre companies in town were Walterdale Playhouse, Studio Theatre, and the Citadel Theatre.  But the now-defunct Theatre Three soon opened its doors, and Turner attempted to continue acting here, as she found she had a vested interest.  She had fallen in love in Edmonton, and had children here.  She put down roots.

But she soon found that the rigours of self-promotion and the acting life-style weren’t particularly conducive to family life.  So, seeking a steady pay-cheque, she decided to go back to school.  To law school.  And back again to study the intricacies of tax law, leaving her life in the theatre behind.  Thus bloomed a satisfying 20-odd year career with the Federal Department of Justice, as a manager, and then regional manager, in the tax department.

Now, in her retirement, Turner is reviving her theatre career.  “I think I’m the only actor to have taken a 35 year hiatus from Equity,” she jokes.  After a successful run in Northern Light’s The Busy World is Hushed, a couple of season’s back, Turner has been turning the heads of Edmonton audiences and reviewers alike. Now, she’s making her Fringe debut in the stage version of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

“I’m a Fringe virgin,” she admits. “I can’t help but say that the idea of doing a tech rehearsal once, and then not seeing the theatre you’re going to perform in for another week is a little scary.” But she’s looking forward to the festival and all the craziness and foofaraw that Fringe has to offer.

And she can’t say enough good about the play.  The Year of Magical Thinking is based on Joan Didion’s book about the death of her husband and the illness of her daughter.  “The play is just so universal in the experience of grief,” says Turner.  “Didion puts into words the kinds of things we all feel when a loved one dies.”

But it’s not just bleakness and death.  The idea of “magical thinking” refers to the sense that if a person hopes hard enough, and performs the right actions, an unavoidable event can be averted.  Didion’s book has become one of the preeminent pieces in the canon of grief literature, and the play, which starred Vanessa Redgrave in its Broadway incarnation, explores the ideas of grief and hope in Didion’s inimitable style.

Which gives an actor like Turner a lot to play with.  And with perennial Sterling winner Wayne Paquette on board as director, not to mention a great venue in the Westbury space, Turner has the recipe for a Fringe hit on her hands.

As for what she’s up to after Fringe, Turner smiles and shrugs. “I’m open,” she says. “Would you like to print my phone number?”