Billie McBride performs The Year of Magical Thinking at the Aurora Fox Arts Center, which is running through Feb. 26. Photo provided by Aurora Fox Arts Center

When Joan Didion died on Dec. 23, 2021, she followed her daughter Quintana Roo Dunne by 16 years and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, by 18. Widely considered to be one of the nation’s greatest writers, Didion achieved accolades throughout her life for her incisive essays on politics and culture as well as a number of novels. She also collaborated with her husband, another author, on screenplays.

But it was her 2005 memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking” that pushed her into literary superstardom, a somewhat surprising place for a woman so reticent off the page. The book details the year after Dunne’s sudden death of a heart attack as the couple was sitting down to dinner on Dec. 30 after having visited their daughter in the hospital, who at the time was unconscious with septic shock. Throughout the year, Quintana continued to struggle with health problems and was hospitalized again in Los Angeles (she later died of acute pancreatitis in 2005, an experience Didion chronicled in her 2011 book “Blue Nights”).

If you go:

Runs through Feb. 26, Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Approximate 90 minute runtime with no intermission

Adult tickets $28-$40

Purchase online at or by calling 303-739-1970

Masks recommended but not required.

The book struck a nerve for its frank depictions of grief, and following its success Didion adapted it into a one-woman stage play which debuted on Broadway in 2007. That play is now being performed at the Aurora Fox Arts Center, where it runs for one more weekend.

The play is the second production of the season in the Fox’s black box studio, which hadn’t been used since before the pandemic. The more intimate venue is perfect for the stripped-down performance, which features very little scenery or special effects.

The emotional heft of the play is carried by its one and only actor, Billie McBride, who has worked at a number of Denver-area theatres as an actor and director. McBride is returning to the Fox after previously being scheduled to perform in the Fox’s adaptation of “Peter Pan” in 2020, which was canceled after the coronavirus lockdowns threw live theatre into turmoil. She does a good job carrying the production, which without a compelling presence would easily lag.

Those who have read the memoir will recognize many of the play’s beats, some of which are copied line-by-line from the book (and at one point McBride even sits down to read from a copy of the memoir, which is one of the few props onstage). But the cadence is slightly different — with someone reading the work out loud more of Didion’s sly humor comes through, and there were multiple points in the show that garnered laughter. For those who were enthusiasts of Didion’s work the play also takes on something of a memorial tone, as the knowledge that she has now joined the ranks of the dead hangs unspoken in the air.

Indeed, this play will probably be received differently after the past several years, which has made many more people familiar with the kinds of nerve-wracking extended hospital stays that are described so vividly in the play. The play opens with an admonishment from McBride, playing Didion, that though what happened to her was unique, something like it will happen to each one of us at some point in our lives. She was right.

Making widely appealing art out of the vagaries of grief, which can be personal to an isolating degree, is difficult. Both the book and the play succeed at this task, particularly in how they describe the strange forms of denial and delusion that grief can induce as the brain struggles to process what has happened.

“I have negotiated grief,” director Christy Montour-Larson said in a director’s note. “I have gotten that phone call when life changed in an instant, when life as I knew it ended. Perhaps you have, too. And when your rational mind is trying to tell you things you don’t want to hear, even the toughest of us will go looking for the loophole. You know, the one that gives a fighting chance to negotiate beyond the rational. The one that makes you keep your loved one’s shoes just in case they might need them when they returned.”

The Fox will return to the main stage for the final two shows of the season, “Toni Stone” and “Treasure Island.” Debuting March 10, “Toni Stone” is the Colorado premiere of a play about the first woman to play baseball in the Negro Leagues, and the first woman to play professionally in any men’s league in the U.S. “Treasure Island” is a new musical adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of adventure on the high seas.

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