By Will Broaddus
---- — Anne Kraft wasn’t wild about Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” when she first read the book, and she found the stage version difficult to perform.
“It was a challenge,” Kraft said. “But I fell in love with it. Through working on it, I learned to love it.”
She came to love it so much that her current performance at Salem Theatre Company will be Kraft’s fifth appearance in the play.
What made the story difficult to present on stage was not so much the tragic nature of its material, she said, as “the way it’s written. It’s an emotional journey. It’s memory, it’s now, it bounces all around. It’s different in that sense.”
The book, which Didion adapted into a one-woman play that appeared on Broadway in 2007, recorded a double blow in the famous writer’s life. Her husband, novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack in December 2003 at age 71. A few months later, their adopted daughter and only child, Quintana Roo Dunne, suffered a brain hemorrhage. She died not long after the book was published, at age 39.
As Didion examines her experiences of loss and grief, her focus shifts to accommodate a range of feelings, memories and associations. These include moments of “magical thinking,” or childish beliefs about reality.
For example, Didion refused to give away her dead husband’s shoes because he would need them if he ever came back to life — and donating them would acknowledge that he wasn’t going to do that.
Other, seemingly random ideas and associations can intrude in her narrative, but they all belong to the process of coming to terms with overwhelming events.
“It’s a constant jumping act,” Kraft said. “As an actor, you’ve got to find the connections. I didn’t have them the first time I did it. I still find new meanings to things.”
Kraft, who grew up in St. Augustine, Fla., lived in New York for 30 years before returning to her hometown in 1989.
“I went to New York after studying theater and started getting some shows,” she said. “Mostly, I did off-, off-Broadway. I think I didn’t really like the business of show business.”
One of her biggest breaks came after leaving New York, when she auditioned for a production of Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar Named Desire” at Theatre Jacksonville, “the longest-running theater in Florida.”
“They called me by the time I got home,” she said. “Michael Emerson directed it. He’s now in ‘Person of Interest’ on CBS.
“I played Blanche. It was the role of a lifetime, a play that I feel like I had been preparing for all my life.”
Kraft also helped found a community theater, the Limelight Theatre in St. Augustine, which is now in its 22nd season.
Kraft returned to New York when she auditioned to be Vanessa Redgrave’s understudy in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which appeared on Broadway in 2007, and was surprised when only three other people showed up.
“I heard through talking to another actress there that if Redgrave got sick, they would cancel the show,” she said.
When the play became available for local productions, a friend suggested she take on the role, which Kraft has performed at several different venues in Florida. She is coming to Massachusetts because a friend in Vermont suggested she make a proposal to the theater in Salem.
The friend had meant Salem, N.Y., just north of Albany, but by the time Kraft discovered the mistake, she had already emailed John Fogle, artistic director of Salem Theatre Company, and reached an agreement to perform here.
“Life is so much like that,” she said.
For all its difficult emotions, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2005, has won many admirers.
“It was an amazing, long journey,” Kraft said. “I don’t know how this woman survived it.”
The play’s message appears in the first three sentences of the book, which are reprinted on its back cover:
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
“What I pick out of it is the message: You’ve got to live now,” Kraft said. “Doing the play has made me look at life in a different way.”
IF YOU GO ... What: "The Year of Magical Thinking" When: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 7, 8 and 9, at 7:30 p.m. Where: Salem Theatre Company, 90 Lafayette St., Salem Information: Tickets are $15 for students, $25 seniors, $35 general admission, available at www.salemtheatre.com or by calling Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111.