Sawtooth Productions is presenting its latest live play-reading this weekend at the Argyros Performing Arts Center in Ketchum. The show will start at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8, in the Argyros’ new Tierney Theater. Actress Claudia McCain will star in a one-woman show directed by Clove Galilee, and although some may not understand the allure of a read-through, Sawtooth Productions Artistic Director Jon Kane assured this production is “something special.”
The play in question is an adaptation of Joan Didion’s international-bestselling memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which chronicles her grief process after the death of her husband and leading up to the death of her daughter following a prolonged illness. Though it’s deeply personal subject matter, Didion writes with her signature detached and matter-of-fact style. While never cold, this bluntness allows the text to achieve a kind of universality. Her experiences with grief and sorrow encompass a wide spectrum of human experience.
At the urging of British playwright and filmmaker David Hare (writer of “The Hours” and “Plenty,” among others), Didion adapted her 2005 book into a play, which first debuted on Broadway in 2007, produced by Scott Rudin, under Hare’s direction and starring Vanessa Redgrave in the only role. The show has played in New York, London, Saltzburg, Sydney, Barcelona, Chicago, Ottawa and Paris, and now makes its Sun Valley premier at the brand new Argyros Performing Arts Center on Main Street in Ketchum.
Taking on the role of Didion is longtime local actress McCain. McCain has appeared in a number of productions with Sawtooth, including “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” by Delia Ephron, Ilene Beckerman and Nora Ephron; “The Actor’s Nightmare” by Christopher Durang; and several play readings. When it came to casting the lead for “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Kane said, “Claudia’s the only person I can think of doing it.”
While the prospect of exploring the personal anguish of a real-world, still-living and popular figure might intimidate lesser actresses, McCain met the part with nothing but excitement.
“Joan Didion is one of the great literary talents of our age,” McCain said, “so to have this opportunity is a gift.”
Didion first garnered widespread acclaim for her collection of essays “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” exploring the pitfalls of the 1960s California counterculture. Since then, she has remained one of America’s most widely respected contemporary writers.
Portraying a living person can be a delicate business, even when dealing with autobiographical material. As an added difficulty, the very nature of the one-woman show eliminates any possibility of a safety net. Without other actors to collaborate with and play off of, McCain must make the stage her own. She does come with one form of support unusual to Sawtooth’s reading series, however, which will doubtlessly bolster the production immeasurably. “I don’t plan to do an imitation,” McCain said. “I just want to share her story in the very best way I can with direction and guidance from Clove [Galilee].”
This is the first time Sawtooth has ever enlisted a director for a reading.
“I’ve wanted to work with Clove for a while,” Kane said. “She’s quite brilliant.”
Galilee has theater in her blood. The daughter of avant-garde actress Ruth Maleczech and playwright Lee Breuer, Galilee grew up heavily involved with all aspects of the theater industry, and is now an artistic associate with Mabou Mines, the experimental New York theater founded by her parents. She is the co-artistic director of her own theater company, Trick Saddle, and has worked as director, actress, artistic director and other roles in plays, films and other artistic pieces.
Sawtoooth Productions has been producing readings of hit plays for 20 years.
“We focus on the best plays from the best playwrights,” Kane said.
Those have included works from such notable playwrights as Sam Shepard, Nora Ephron, Jonathan Tolins and David Mamet. While popular, those previous readings will not quite compare to the atypical presentation of “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Unlike standard, informal play-readings, this production features lights, sound and effects, taking advantage of the Argyros’ state-of-the-art theatrical technology.
“We’re taking the new theater for a test run,” Kane said.
Themes of death and grief define the narrative of Didion’s memoir. If anything, the play elaborates upon them further, as the author explores her daughter’s death in greater detail. Just as in the book, though, the play does not linger on those realities in a depressive or defeatist manner. Rather, McCain feels that Didion’s chronicle of her own mourning might provide comfort and reassurance for audiences.
“Love and loss are inherent to our human experience,” she said. “Seeing how Ms. Didion navigates [hardship] might allow others to realize they are not alone in their feelings.”
This is a free event, open to everyone, though donations are accepted and very much appreciated. Complimentary wine will be served in the lobby after the doors open at 5:30 p.m. The performance will begin at 6:30 p.m., running for about 75 minutes.
Both actress Claudia McCain and director Clove Galilee will be present after the show for a Q&A session with the audience. Anyone interested in the play, the production, Didion or related topics should feel welcome to stick around for what promises to be a thought-provoking and highly engaging conversation.
For more information, visit theargyros.org.