The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds
Paul Zindel’s 1964 play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds may be 46 years old, but it still carries a charge of emotional intensity. In the Happy Medium Theatre’s production, that charge is amplified to skin-tingling levels by superb performances and first-rate direction by Lizette Marie Morris.
The play’s mid-twentieth-century setting is never overtly referred to, but it’s plain from the production design, which includes period-appropriate costuming (the work of Louise Hamill), furniture, and other props (Barbara DiGirolamo, Mikey DiLoretto, and Lesley Anne Moreau). The set is an overstuffed, sloppy living room; this is the home of a single mother, Beatrice (Cassandra Meyer, in exceptional form) and her two daughters, Tillie and Ruth (Caitlyn Conley and Kathryn Lynch, respectively, both of whom excel).
Tillie is shy, dominated at every step by her disappointed, unfulfilled mother, who resents her daughters for their youth, beauty, and--in Tillie’s case--intelligence. Seething with regrets for youthful ambitions too easily abandoned, and forever tantalizing herself with vague plans for a grandiose future, Beatrice swans through her life in a barely dressed state. To bring in extra money she cares for an elderly border--a seemingly senile woman called "Nanny" (Christina Malanga, who also appears--with a striking different affect--as a youthful student in a brief, but comical, scene). Beatrice spares as little sympathy for Nanny as for her daughters, screeching at the old woman in a malignant parody of solicitousness.
In an opening monologue, Tillie expresses herself to the audience with a poetic soliloquy about the atoms in her body. It’s a scientifically literate speech: organic molecules were created in the cauldrons of ancient stars, and unleashed into the cosmos when those stars went supernova. Those remnants were then recycled into our own sun, our own planet, and--after the appropriate course of evolution--our own bodies. The entire process has taken the age of the universe itself--the better part of 14 billion years.
Just being here, Tillie’s monologue suggests, is akin to a secular, scientific miracle. And why shouldn’t Tillie be excited about the grandeur and the certainties of science? Every day with her moody, unpredictable mother is an excruciation of doubt, and a game of waiting. Can Beatrice’s inevitable cruelties be forestalled? Or will the punishments she metes out rain down despite Tillie’s best efforts at appeasement?
Older sister Ruth works as a secretary at Tillie’s school, and is mortified to see her own kin subjected to mockery and abuse. Tillie is not one of the "cool" girls; neither is Ruth, really, though she does dress and act on the barely respectable side of the line. It’s her way of compensating for damage of her own: Ruth was witness to a horrible tragedy, and the experience has marked her indelibly. When put under stress--or the nightmares that plague her--Ruth is at risk of epileptic seizures.
A handsome science teacher has taken a kindly interest in Tillie. Though we never meet him, we come away with a mental portrait of Mr. Goodman as a man fitting the beneficent connotation carried by his name: he gently encourages Tillie’s talent for scientific inquiry, and he must have an inkling of what the poor girl faces at home because the tenor of Beatrice’s chats with him--flirtatious as they are, with Beatrice purring into the phone in a manner that tends toward the sultry--carry hints that Mr. Goodman is managing this nightmarish mother for the sake of his student.
Eventually, Mr. Goodman arranges for Tillie to have the materials and the resources she needs to enter the science fair. Her project: the play’s title tells you the thesis, but the underlying metaphor is devastatingly consequential to the play’s execution. Like those atoms in her hand--those tiny bit of matter that, by definition, cannot be subdivided--individual human beings are also tightly integrated, whether for better or for worse.
The ancient poet Lucretius envisioned a universe defined by the swerve and collisions of atoms, and he might as well have been describing Zindel’s play--Beatrice, Ruth, and Tillie carom off one another with such velocity and at such odd angles that there may be no hope for any semblance of peace or normalcy in their home. The result is not unlike what radiation does to flowers: stunts certain aspects, and produces grotesque exaggerations in others.
The emotional charge mentioned before builds throughout the play like electricity in a storm cloud. Only a thunderclap--or an epileptic fit--can relieve the charge, and this play contains both. (Kudos to lighting designer Greg Jutkiewicz and sound designer Abram Taber for effective work throughout, and especially for their collaborative efforts to render a lighting storm as realistic as possible.) But no one here is irremediably villainous; even Beatrice is sympathetic, once we get a glimpse into the depth and the pain of her disappointments.
Beatrice herself is shocked, at one point, to see just how bent out of true her moral compass is, and how far off the mark she has wandered as a mother. Her shock of recognition, and dismay, might apply to anyone watching, because there’s another principle of physics at work in the play, as in human life--the law that we can never see ourselves for what we really are, and where we are really heading.
For that, we rely on one another, if we are lucky, or on literature. Zindel’s play fits the bill, which is why it’s still being performed today, and why it’s still relevant and resonant. Having such a talented cast and crew helps: the Happy Medium Theatre Company takes what’s on the page and realizes it fully on the stage.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds continues through Jan. 15 at The Factory Theater, located at 79 Tremont Street.
Tickets cost $16 or $20 at the door; students and seniors pay $14 in advance or $17 at the door. Tickets can be obtained online at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/139994 or at www.happymediumtheatre.com
Performance schedule: Thursday, Jan. 13, and Friday, Jan. 14, at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 15, at 4:00 p.m. and at 8:00 p.m.