The impact of radiation on plant seeds, as alluded to in the title of Paul Zindel’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” is surprisingly positive. As for the play itself, a top-notch cast and compelling performances do little to stem the soporific effect of the banal text on audience members.
“The Effect of Gamma Rays,” performed in the somewhat claustrophobic Nick Chapel, features a small cast and relatively few scene changes. The script, which earned Zindel a Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1971, tells the story of the three Hunsdorfer women — and one invalid.
Beatrice (Julie Whitesell ’05) spends most of the play accoutered for bed; lounging in a robe and sponge curlers and brandishing a cigarette, she bitterly spits venomous remarks at her two daughters, Matilda and Ruth, and frequently detains Matilda from school so she can perform banal chores. Convinced that life has passed her by, Beatrice spends her time lamenting the loss of her “dancer’s legs” to her daughters and generally promoting an acidic atmosphere.
Ruth (Chloe Kolman ’07) deals with the toxic environment by chasing boys and siding with her teachers, who, as former classmates of Beatrice, denounce her by referring to her as “Betty the Loon” around the school lounges.
Matilda, or Tillie (Emily Appelbaum ’08), retreats to textbooks and science experiments. She ignores Ruth’s constant teasing and, as the audience learns through her recorded rhapsodies, loves the idea of the resilient, intriguing, ever-present atom. Nanny (Ashley Fox ’08) rounds out the cast as the vacant, decrepit “dried prune” (as Beatrice christens her) of a woman.
The play, which is under two hours long, has no intermission. All of the action takes place at one of two locales — the Hunsdorfer household or the auditorium of the high school that Ruth and Tillie attend. Props are minimal, with the most unusual being a living, black-and-white rabbit. While the script contains the names (and venomous secondhand opinions) of some personalities on the school faculty, the story focuses on the emotions and trials of the three principal women.
The audience soon learns to sympathize with the long-suffering Appelbaum, a pigtailed, quiet girl who endears herself to the audience by means of her maturity and scholarliness.
While Kolman is at times an annoying flibbertigibbet fixated on the search for her elusive “Devil’s Kiss” Jezebel lipstick, she redeems herself through her genuine support of her sister at the schoolwide science fair. (She earns pity, also, for her anxiety-induced seizures, which are about as easy to watch as it is easy to watch someone receive electroshock therapy.)
The talented Whitesell plays Beatrice so convincingly as to elicit instinctive loathing from the audience. Her performance revolves around props like chloroform; her signature moments involve overturning chairs, repeatedly slamming the phone on its receiver and gulping Jack Daniels straight from the bottle. The audience is quickly piqued upon learning of her habit of detaining Tillie from school to do, what, sweep the kitchen?
Though the actors do admirable jobs with the material, the playwright’s characterizations leave something to be desired. In this short play, the characters seem so black-and-white that one may wonder why the vicious Beatrice doesn’t don red fabric devil’s ears and why Tillie doesn’t dress exclusively in gauzy, angelic white.
Most abominable is the symbolism of the subject: The comparison between marigold seeds exposed to radioactive Cobalt-60 and Tillie and Ruth exposed to the psychotic Beatrice is frying-pan-over-your-head obvious and, thus, not rewarding. Perhaps fresh in the ’70s, the idea of overcoming the adversity of an external stimulus such as this seems creepily inappropriate in a world where irradiated meat is reviled and people fear cell phone-induced brain tumors.
The performers bring life and believability to the emotions and plights of the characters, but the weakness of the plot and its transparently cloying mechanisms hamper the production. While limited exposure of Tillie’s marigolds in “The Effect of Gamma Rays” to usually harmful radiation reportedly begets “wonderful” mutations, the script sadly misses such phenomena.