Joan Didion is either a very brave woman or rather a dreadful one. Both, possibly. To expose your own personal anguish to a large public by writing a memoir must be difficult enough; to turn it into a play, and watch large audiences react not only to your husband’s sudden death but also to graphic details of your daughter’s lingering and fatal illness would seem to be unbearable. Finding it hard to understand the impulse that might have made Didion wish to expose her tragedies to the public eye, I expected to dislike the one-woman Broadway production of Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and to find it emotionally exhibitionistic.

Instead, ably and sometimes beautifully performed by Vanessa Redgrave, the play struck me as an honest effort on Didion’s part to communicate her pain and to understand her sometimes bizarre reactions to the two deaths. Didion describes herself as a lifelong...

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