Almost exactly two years ago, I was in the front row for a performance of The Year of Magical Thinking, a one-woman show starring Vanessa Redgrave and capturing Joan Didion’s experiences and emotions after the loss of her husband and daughter.
Redgrave was, as always, luminous and intense. She’s a true theater actor who connects with the audience directly: by holding individual gazes, by talking to (not over) the faces before her, by inviting you — pleading with you — to feel what she is feeling, not as a spectator but as a witness.
Her eyes landed on mine at one point, and stayed there for several lines of dialogue. I felt a jolt of energy, almost a kind of fright. I lost track of the words she was speaking, but their meaning was indelibly imparted: You think this won’t happen to you, you think this will never happen to you, you think you’re immune. You’re not.
Despite her ability to convey that desperation and pain, Natasha Richardson’s mother (which is what she really was on that stage — not Vanessa Redgrave, not Joan Didion, but Joely and Natasha’s mum) may herself have thought or hoped she was immune and would never feel the anguish of the loss of a child. And embodying grief on the stage is nothing like getting kicked in the gut by it in real life, real death. But I think she’ll be able to draw some strength from being in The Year of Magical Thinking, and from her eye-level connections to the audience. Transforming individual experience into something universal — making us all feel human and connected — is the best of what art can do. Even when the experience is the worst of what life can bring.
I can’t know how it feels to be Natasha Richardson’s mother or other family member or friend. All I can do is hope that they all know, somehow, that a lot of us in the “audience” are feeling the pain too. It’s smaller and shallower, but it’s akin: it’s the loss of a part of all of us. Natasha added so much to what Meryl Streep recently called the “aggregate human attempt,” and losing her (in the aggregate, in the abstract, at every level) just hurts.
I guess I’m feeling that thing people try to express with the phrase “our hearts go out to you.” At least, something’s gone out of my heart today.
Thank you, Natasha, for bringing your unique art and magic to the stage and screen. We miss you already.