A Mother’s Legacy
by Barbara Waldinger
In keeping with its mission to revive “great but unjustly neglected works,” Bridge Street Theatre 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.
Although Fay, who has frequently worked with Bridge Street Theatre as both actress and playwright, is the most experienced performer onstage, director Steven Patterson has managed to assemble a cast that works beautifully together. He encouraged Cahill and Lay to explore the physicality of their characters, which is especially important for Cahill, who rarely speaks. Her whole body expresses the tension she holds within, only relaxed by her poetic, fantastical voiceovers describing her love for tiny atoms that explode and reinvent themselves in new forms. In contrast, Lay is always moving, perching on chairs, fixing her sister’s hair, searching for makeup, and jerking convulsively when terrified. In a final confrontation with her mother, Lay is chilling as she unleashes the cruelty she has been taught. Nanny, their very old and unresponsive tenant (Doris Siepel), has a lovely moment at the table with Tillie: Nanny is drinking beer instead of her usual “hotsy water” while Tillie holds Peter, her rabbit. (Yes, Peter is a real white rabbit who lives in a cage onstage. How brave of Patterson and the cast! ) With a gesture and a smile, as Siepel reaches over to pet the rabbit, she and Cahill share a quietly loving glance, uninterrupted by Beatrice’s high decibel volume when addressing Nanny. Janice Vickery (Alexa Powell), playing another finalist in the Science Fair, anxiously describes her project to the judges, giggling and lovable in her insecurity.
Set and lighting designer John Sowle created a “room of wood which was once a vegetable store” owned by Beatrice’s father. A splendidly detailed picture of deterioration, the room features wooden slats on the walls, fabric curtains covering the entrances to the bedrooms and bathroom, a dilapidated old couch, a tiny working kitchen, paper-covered windows, and a staircase with landing that figures in the most dramatic moments of the play. The lighting was most effective when it lingered on a single character, usually Tillie, during her voiceovers. The wildly colored flowers, which used to be marigolds before being subjected to gamma rays, evoked the freakish beauty of the damaged plants, a symbol of hope for the damaged daughters of Beatrice.
Costume designer Michelle Rogers’ ridiculously large pink bow for Tillie’s big presentation spoke volumes about why Ruth was so sure her sister would be laughed at, but the fuzzy slippers worn by Beatrice were oddly out-of-character for this cold-hearted woman, and the supposedly tight sweater worn by Ruth did not seem as inappropriate as it might have been.
The music, by sound designer Carmen Borgia, heard at the beginning and during all transitions was a highlight of this production. It sounded like strange piano arpeggios or the notes on a celesta, fading in and out, delicate, mysterious, fragile, signaling that all was not right.
Patterson and his team have brought to life a disturbing yet poignant piece of theatre that will not soon fade from memory. Zindel is the author of novels for young adults that aim at teenagers’ “continuous battle to get through the years between twelve and twenty—an abrasive time.” The teenagers we meet in his play face terrible demons but we still hold out hope that they will flourish and bloom.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds runs from July 6-16 at the Bridge Street Theatre. For tickets call 800-838-3006 or online at http://effect.brownpapertickets.com.
Bridge Street Theatre presents The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds by Paul Zindel. Cast: Lindsay Cahill (Tillie), Roxanne Fay (Beatrice), Kalia Lay (Ruth), Doris Siepel (Nanny), Alexa Powell (Janice Vickery). Director: Steven Patterson, Scenic and Lighting Design: John Sowle, Costume Design: Michelle Rogers, Sound Design: Carmen Borgia, Stage Manager: Caedmon Holland. Running Time: ninety minutes including intermission; at the Bridge Street Theatre Mainstage, 44 West Bridge Street, Catskill, NY, Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm, from July 6; closing July 16.