THEATER REVIEW: “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” @ Bridge Street Theatre [Berkshire on Stage]
Review by Barbara Waldinger
Photograph by John Sowle
In keeping with its mission to revive “great but unjustly neglected works,” Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill is daring to present The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds in a haunting and powerful production that gives literal meaning to the term “punch lines.” Winner of the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as the 1970 New York Drama Critics’ Circle and Obie Awards for Best Play of the Year, Paul Zindel’s play, written when he was twenty-five years old, recalls his life as a teenager, living in various ramshackle locations with his sister and divorced mother, whose failed “get rich quick” schemes fueled her hatred of herself, her children and the world.
Beatrice Hunsdorfer, a bitter, angry alcoholic played to perfection by Roxanne Fay, has led a life of disappointments, having married the wrong man who subsequently left her with “two stones” around her neck: her daughters Tillie (Lindsay Cahill), a quiet, frightened child whose unique science project lends its title to the play, and Ruth (Kalia Lay), an epileptic, emotional wreck. Broke, Beatrice is forced to take in elderly tenants whom she abuses, as she does her daughters, often forcing the girls to miss school in order to clean the house, empty the pet rabbit’s droppings, or, her latest scheme: turning their home into a tea shop. Much of the play is composed of Beatrice’s monologues – on the phone with the high school, verbally attacking her children, bemoaning her life or telling stories – while Tillie’s imaginative inner life and love of science (Zindel was a high school physics and chemistry teacher) are expressed in the form of voiceovers. Ruth’s running commentary (spoken by Lay with manic energy) about her life at school and her pride in her sister’s project, is punctured by an unhealthy love/hate relationship with her mother.
This play is not for the faint of heart. To be sure, Beatrice’s shocking lines can be funny, especially in the hands of Fay, who delivers them matter-of-factly: dubbing the rabbit “an Angora manure machine,” and a “cottontail compost heap,” or comparing the serving of tea to her tenant as “feeding honey to a zombie.” Still, we cannot help but be upset by her behavior towards her fragile daughters, despite the fact that the playwright, with the help of this emotionally available actress, allows us to see into her dark heart. Beatrice confesses: “I spent today taking stock of my life and I’ve come up with zero.” Fair enough. But no one – not even the amazing Roxanne Fay – can justify the damage she has done to her suffering children.