Director Jenny Sullivan, left, and Linda Purl David Bazemore photo

Director Jenny Sullivan, left, and Linda Purl
David Bazemore photo

When Joan Didion’s book “The Year of Magical Thinking” debuted in 2005, it gained accolades as one of the finest contemporary books about the grieving process. Written in 88 days, Ms. Didion took on a time of double tragedy: the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne from cardiac arrest, and the long illness of their daughter, who passed away just as Ms. Didion finished the manuscript.

Two years later, with David Hare directing and Vanessa Redgrave starring, “The Year of Magical Thinking” made its way to Broadway with Ms. Didion’s own adaptation of the book into a play. Five years and many accolades later, our Ensemble Theater Company, with Jenny Sullivan directing and Linda Purl starring, bring Ms. Didion’s one-woman play to Santa Barbara.

“The play is more psychologically complete,” says Ms. Purl, a fact due to Ms. Didion adding her daughter’s death to the stage version. “The play serves as a how-to guide to getting over life’s biggest hurdles. The play is more than a recounting of what happened. She goes deep into the process of not necessarily ‘getting over’ the hard things, but she goes a long way into sharing how one may learn to live with a loss.”

This is Ms. Purl’s first one-woman-play but not her first collaboration with Jenny Sullivan, a longtime friend, who she calls “very nurturing, very gentle, very supportive.” When she first sat down with the script she caught herself highlighting her lines, which you’d only do if there were other actors to worry about.

“This is more akin to sitting around a campfire and telling a story,” she says. “There’s something very ancient about the tradition into which this play falls. It’s passing along wisdom.”

Going into the play, Ms. Purl had her own personal challenges with grief and illness. Her mother only recently entered hospice, and her longtime friend and fellow actress Bonnie Franklin – best known from “One Day at a Time” – died from pancreatic cancer. At one point Ms. Franklin was going to take on the lead role.

“At one point she thought she didn’t have the strength to do it,” Ms. Purl says. “And I told her I couldn’t take on the role without her blessing. I wasn’t privy to how deep her struggle was … I had decided with my mother’s illness that I could not do it, and I was prepared to tell the Ensemble I was out.”

But just as she was about to bow out, Ms. Purl opened her email to find notice of Ms. Franklin’s passing. Then she knew she had to do it. The inspiration and the knowledge about how to get through this time in her life was there in the play itself.

“Didion is very tough on herself mentally,” Ms. Purl says. “She’s very precise with her words. She doesn’t take a thought, a word, a syllable for granted. She thinks with the precision of a surgeon … It’s as if her toughness had be preparing her all her life for that moment.”

‘The Year of Magical Thinking’
When: Through April 21. 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; 2 and 7 p.m. Sun.; 4 p.m. matinee April 13.
Where: Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara Street
Cost: $40 – $65
Information: 965-5400,

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