Didion’s Search for Meaning Opens a World of Wonder
By Patrick Hurley
The intersection between past and future, between meaning and chaos- all the lingering inertia that implies a sense of false permanence and comfort come together in the telling of Joan Didion’s masterwork, “The White Album,” a seminal essay that deals with the struggles, both visceral and cultural, that defined a generation of Americans, and gives voice to the uncertainty, the freedom, and the impossible thrust toward more progressive modernity. The time was the late 1960s, the place was Los Angeles and the voice was Joan Didion. CAP UCLA in association with Center Theatre Group presents the essay as a performance piece created by Lars Jan/Early Morning Opera.
Often, justifiably noted as the voice of her generation, Ms. Didion’s words when read or heard aloud, still cut with the precision of a surgeon’s blade, leaving us at once bewildered, besotted and breathless. Lars John/Early Morning Opera and Actress Mia Barron, who delivers the essay in its entirety, have created a performance piece that is meant to capture the episodic and ever-shifting landscape of the tumultuous decade that brought, among other things, the assassination of political leaders, Free love and demonstrations, The Vietnam War, The Black Panthers, The Beatles, The Doors, and at the close of the decade- the event that Didion references as the moment “the sixties ended abruptly,” the Manson murders of Sharon Tate and her friends on August 9, 1969 in a house on Cielo Street in Los Angeles. The piece is not just the recitation of the essay, it’s also a pastiche work of ideas, an impressionistic and fluid recapturing of the ethos of a time when defiance was a trait of the young, and inequality was as ubiquitous as the sunshine in Hollywood. Mia Barron eloquently delivers the essay hitting the nuance, the irony, the no-nonsense tone of Didion’s prose without a hitch. She’s effortless to listen to, and keeps us leaning forward in our seats for more. Behind her, in a white room enclosed with sliding glass doors, there is another performance transpiring. A group of actors, along with some members of the audience, act as background performers, capturing moments from the scenes that Ms. Barron is elucidating, and sometimes just capturing the essence of the time. The marriage between the essay and the performance creates a landscape of identity, struggle, violence and beauty. The moments of pulsing light and color are stunning, and there is a rendition of The Doors’ Light My Fire that will have goosebumps running up and down your spine.
Stitching pieces, fragments of such a violent and volatile era that defined a generation, this piece, like Didion’s essay, doesn’t offer answers, but sometimes desperately seeks for one. Didion famously wrote that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It is through storytelling that history is written, and it is through the writer’s interpretation of history that meaning can be derived. But for Didion, this is the great struggle, reflecting on experience to see what it means. She’s fascinated with history, with creating story, and yet when it comes to what it all means, she deeply struggles with all of the chaos of life, or “the stories without a narrative.” And her need to include these bits and pieces to create a patchwork only serves the driving through-line of this performance- Life is chaos. Sometimes we don’t get an answer. Sometimes we don’t understand the why, and the search for it can be just as valid as the thing itself. After all, isn’t that also the responsibility of an artist? To ask the question, what does it all mean, and then to put into his or her work the search for the answer? Whether they come to it or not, it is the attempt to find it that makes the work compelling, heartbreaking, and beautiful. Tragic and joyful, which is truer to life than any Hollywood ending ever could be.
This production only plays for one weekend at UCLA, but hopefully will make its way back again someday. It should be seen. It’s a truly novel theatrical experience that will stick with you, much like the words of its iconic author.