The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds — Image courtesy Gremlin Theatre

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

Gremlin Theatre
Directed by Ellen Fenster

It is not that uncommon for a single play to encompass moods ranging from harrowing bleakness to starry-eyed optimism. What is unusual about Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is that there is very little in between these two extremes. And in the Gremlin Theatre’s current production, directed by Ellen Fenster, this contrast comes to the fore, leaving the audience to figure out how, if at all, these two pieces of the play fit together.

Written in 1964 while Zindel was still a high-school science teacher, Gamma Rays takes place entirely within the storefront space that Beatrice (Jodi Kellogg), a middle-aged widow, has turned into an apartment for herself and her two daughters, Ruth (Eleonore Dendy) and Tillie (Caledonia Wilson). Beatrice ekes out a living taking in elderly boarders whose children cannot take care of them, and she frequently makes her daughters stay home from school so they can help her look after her charges. The events of the play revolve around Tillie’s eponymous science fair project, which she has been encouraged to pursue by her science teacher, Mr. Goodman.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds — Image courtesy Gremlin TheatreTillie needs some encouragement, because she receives nothing of the sort from her mother, whose life has been dominated by a series of disappointments and setbacks, leaving her bitter and angry at the world. Beatrice treats both her daughters and her current boarder, Nanny (Donna Porfiri), as burdens that prevent her from making anything of her life, and she feels persecuted by the outside world, particularly as represented by her daughters’ school, which she attended and where she felt mistreated and misunderstood. Kellogg’s portrayal of the character gives us some sense of Beatrice’s humanity but no hope whatsoever that she will ever become an adequate parent. Her few moments of tenderness toward her children do not come close to making up for her abusive behavior and apparent commitment to making them share in her own misery.

That leaves it to the children to figure out how to survive through adolescence in Beatrice’s orbit, and they take very different paths. Ruth seems determined to act like a normal, bubbly teenager, but she has a definite penchant for verbal cruelty, and she suffers from seizures triggered by emotional stress, which is hard to avoid in her household. Tillie, on the other hand, is withdrawn and socially awkward, but with a rich inner life illuminated by what she learns in her science class. This comes through in several episodes in which Tillie speaks to the audience about her experiment and what it means to her. During these episodes, Wilson portrays Tillie as confident and eloquent, conveying a sense of wonder about the natural world, whereas during her interactions with her family, she is much more reserved, though still coming across as calmer and more grounded than her mother and sister.

Gamma Rays can be difficult to watch, given that the trajectories of all three main characters seem to be set in place from the very beginning of the play. While Tillie has a good chance of thriving once she escapes from her mother’s clutches, Beatrice’s past misfortunes and her internalization of those experiences leave her with no real opportunities to turn her life around, and Ruth seems unlikely to transcend the crippling effects of her malformed childhood.

The Gremlin Theatre has made a name for itself through its committed performances of unfairly neglected plays like this one. As it turns out, this will be the company’s last play in its current space, which it is vacating due to likely redevelopment of the building. Hopefully, they will find an equally intimate and accommodating space in which to put on their consistently thoughtful productions in the future.

Photos by Aaron Fenster

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.