Much like the science experiment in its title, Paul Zindel’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” offers an up-close examination of a toxic environment and its impact. Gremlin Theatre’s current production pulls no punches as it delves into the excoriating world of a family on the verge of collapse.
This 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, which was later made into a film starring Joanne Woodward, revolves around a divorced mother and her two daughters. Beatrice is a supreme narcissist, filled with rage and unfocused energy, bitterly dwelling on the contrast between the dreams of her youth and her current situation. Struggling to make ends meet, she flits from scheme to scheme, lashes out indiscriminately at those around her and assigns blame to anyone but herself. Older daughter Ruth copes by playing accomplice to her mother’s machinations while younger daughter Tillie retreats into the world of her imagination, fired by a love of science.
A portrayal of family dysfunction only works if it reveals the complex network of attachment, need and ambiguity that fuels it, and director Ellen Fenster ably achieves this goal with the help of a capable cast. Jodi Kellogg is masterful as Beatrice, balancing her character’s acidulous destructiveness with glimmers of pathos. While the ease with which she demeans and abuses the people around her is frightening in its claustrophobic self-absorption, a scene in which she comforts her daughter after a nightmare demonstrates an almost buried potential for compassion.
Caledonia Wilson is luminous as Tillie, the withdrawn child who escapes the pain of her environment by immersing herself in the life of the mind. Captivated by the immensity of the universe opened to her by her science classes, she offers an almost mystical sense of hope for the future. At the same time, Wilson offers a tangible example of the damage her mother inflicts upon her, capturing in expressive body language her withdrawal from the emotional snake pit of her home life. Eleonore Dendy gives an equally nuanced performance as Ruth, sporting a brash exterior and sizzling energy to cover an underlying sense of incipient panic. The cast is rounded out by Donna Porfiri, offering an affecting portrait of an elderly boarder, and Elise Sommers in a humorous cameo as Tillie’s classmate.
Gremlin Theatre gives this searing drama an accomplished staging that effectively evokes the unstable mix of vitriol, despair and, ultimately, hope that lies at its heart.
Lisa Brock writes about theater.