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The Year of Magical Thinking

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Joan Didion warns that it’s going to happen to us too. Didion first cautioned about one of life’s unwelcomed guarantees in her 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. It chronicles Didion’s encounters with the raw existential emotion of grief, due to the sudden loss of her husband – novelist, screenwriter and literary critic, John Gregory Dunne – to cardiac arrest and their grown daughter Quintana’s flu affliction, brain hemorrhage, and resulting comatose state-of-being.

Having adapted her book for the stage, after expanding it to include the double upset of losing her daughter, Didion’s Year made its Broadway debut in March, 2007. Directed by David Hare, it became a successful solo-show starring Vanessa Redgrave as the grieving Didion. Played to such acclaim in New York, Redgrave graciously reprised her portrayal for audiences at London’s National Theatre. Year won praise there too and went on to tour the world.

Now, brought to us by Bright Eyes Productions, an independent staging of The Year of Magical Thinking is on the boards at Hollywood’s Elephant Theatre. Under the sturdy direction of David Robinson and with the daring and visceral performance of Judy Jean Berns as Didion, this marks the So Cal premiere of Year.

Be warned, though, as wise and wonderful as this show may be, its subject is morose. Seeing it on a sunny Sunday afternoon is a bit like attending a mid-day memorial for a dearly departed colleague. What’s more, and this is a tribute Berns’s performance as well as to Didion’s crafty writing, much of the narrative seems off-the-cuff and spontaneously spoken. It’s not until one reflects back upon the show that the skill and cunningness of Didion’s words become evident.

Early on in the proceedings Didion defines the psychological term “magical thinking.” It’s an irrational belief that doing something will provide a causal link to what subsequently happens. Didion likens it to “primitive peoples” holding beliefs that animal or human sacrifice can stave off an impending event. In her personal experience, for instance, Didion becomes attached to the notion of her husband’s shoes. If they are available to him he can use them to walk home. Or this: if she alerts people on the west coast of his death, will he actually be dead in the Pacific Time Zone?

Played out in less than two-hours running time (no intermission) on a simple set design (by Garrison Burrell) and with an accentuating lighting motif (by Matt Richer), Year presents Judy Jean Berns personifying Didion with unwavering credibility, textual accuracy, and sub-textual authenticity as she gives a lecture on her solemn sojourn in a place of nearly unbearable loss and profound sorrow.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a meaningful and moving literary and dramatic achievement. Surely it was for Didion a cathartic release. It also provides that sort of result for audiences. As grim and unyielding as the topic of Year is, it also suggests the resourcefulness and resilience of the human spirit. While magical thinking may be a type of delusion, it can also be a coping mechanism that allows us to adjust and, eventually, even accept loss.

The Year of Magical Thinking continues at the Elephant Theatre – 6322 Santa Monica Boulevard – through October 14. Evening performances are on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees are at 4 p.m. on Sundays. For reservations, dial (323) 960 – 7774. For online ticketing, visit



Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”


Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.