Magical Acting

Barb Ross carries Circle Theater’s one-woman Didion play

Few will fail to find universal value in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. It’s about one of America’s great observers, a master of non-fiction writing, facing the void of catastrophic loss. Fortunately, the pair chosen by the Circle Theater to tell us her story, director Daena Schweiger and Barb Ross, the one-woman cast, have suffered nothing so traumatic as the sudden death of a husband while an only child was comatose in a hospital. But both have lived long enough to know grief, and to know that the theater’s founders, Doug and Laura Marr, had given them a challenging opportunity. Both were working on a rowdier, less poignant play, Sordid Lives for SNAP! Productions, when they began collaborating on Didion’s memoir. It begins with the actress portraying the author urging that we remember her words because, while “The details will be different, this will happen to you.” In other words, only those who die young escape the experience of losing a loved one. For Ross, Didion’s story has helped her better “understand more about my mother’s situation” when she lost her husband, Barb’s father. He died when Barb was 19. For Schweiger, the play helps face the inevitable for Vlasta, her 100-year-old grandmother. “She always says, ‘I’m ready to go,’ but it’s still going to be a shock.” Daena has also endured the loss of a close friend, and now both hear from others who’ve faced losses and wonder about their play. Barb thinks of one friend who lost her husband in the last two years and another who lost her husband last November. “She’s still inching her way” through grief. Director and actress take seriously the challenge of presenting Didion’s journey to such friends. So they’re trying to make it an intimate experience, transforming the stage below Central Presbyterian Church into the storyteller’s living room. Schweiger decided to hold an early rehearsal in the Ross home, inviting a few friends, and giving Barb the opportunity to tell the story in a more one-on-one setting. That meant director Daena sitting on a couch, with three Ross dogs — Cecil the rat terrier, Sugar the Boston terrier and Kip, the 150-pound Rottweiler and German Shepard mix — piled on her lap and complaining when she’d remove her hands to turn a page of script. One quote, “Don’t do that,” captures the drama of what began as a quiet evening at home for Didion and her writer-husband, John Gregory Dunne. With the fireplace warming the room, he was reading a book about World War I and she brought him a second scotch. He wondered if it was single malt. Then she looked over and said, “Don’t do that.” He had slumped, like one might do to exaggerate being tired after a long day. He wasn’t pretending. He was leaving. Thus began what she called her Year of Magical Thinking. Magical because this very unsentimental, straight-thinking Episcopalian wife of a Catholic husband found herself keeping his shoes in case he returned. It was the sort of thinking that began at the emergency room when some recognition of the reality came from learning she had been assigned a social worker. She knew that was ominous, but she still found herself thinking much later that if she just did the right things, somehow he might return. You should understand that he was not only her spouse of many years but her writing partner. As one of Omaha’s most experienced talents, Barb Ross still finds the role unique. “I’ve seldom had a role where I had to carry the entire show.” She has help, of course, from Schweiger, who has added variety to the 90-minute no-intermission drama through movement. “On Broadway,” she notes, “Vanessa Redgrave sat in a chair most of the time.” To avoid “stagnation,” Daena has Ross moving about the “home” setting of desk, couch and bookcase. And she has added variety through thematic music composed for the production by one of Nebraska’s most prolific young composers, Amanda Louise Miller. “We talked about themes we wanted to highlight, and she went home and wrote stuff so on point. She’s a dream to work with and we’re very, very lucky to have her.” The Year of Magical Thinking runs Feb. 18-March 12, Thurs.-Sat. with a dinner at 7 p.m. and show at 8 p.m., at Central Presbyterian Church, 55th and Leavenworth. Tickets are $23 for dinner and play, $13 for play only. Call 553.4715 for details.

posted at 04:56 pm
on Thursday, February 17th, 2011

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