Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby
We have to believe that it took some gumption to decide to bring The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds to the stage in this day and age. Still, to their everlasting credit, Flint Repertory Theatre (REP) launched this emotionally charged story Friday with a cast and crew of professional and well-seasoned individuals who hurled this tale at the audience with all its pain, desperation, and abuse, and yet ultimately managed to infuse a semblance of hope.
Playwright Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer Prize winning play debuted in the early sixties but gained popularity in the seventies. The set speaks volumes about the family residing there. Lauren Nigri’s design took us into an aging wooden structure with newspaper covering the windows, faded paint, dilapidated furnishings and volumes of clutter strewn everywhere.
This is the home wherein Beatrice Hunsdorfer (Janet Haley) has resided most of her life, leaving only very occasionally, and where her father once operated a vegetable store. Her husband left years ago causing her to distrust men and to stridently miss her late father. Her hostility often overflows onto her two girls, Tillie and Ruth, in pointed and cruel outbursts. Haley creates an incredible characterization as she takes Beatrice through a maze of emotions ranging from angst over her state in life to pure evil as she strikes back at the world through her children.
Arising out of this disorder, Beatrice’s youngest, Tillie (Ava Katharine Pietras), is framed in a spotlight to speak to the cosmos about her belief in a future filled with promise through science. She becomes a sort of narrator for good, for hope and for dreams. Pietras portrays this youngster with a sweetness and innocence backed up by understanding and a willingness to forgive. She offers hope and resilience where not much abounds.
Ruth (Claire Jolliffe) is Tillie’s older sister. She is an anxious girl under a lot of stress both at home and at school. She is prone to seizures brought on by worry about not fitting in and about being embarrassed at school by her younger sister who is something of an outcast there. Ruth seems destined to become much like her mother with her constant need to fit in and her quirky connection to Beatrice. She snaps insults, whines when denied and even smokes with her mother.
Madelyn Porter plays the boarder, Nanny, who was dropped off at Beatrice’s house for her to care for. Nearly blind, she shuffles about with a walker. With never a line to speak, Porter exudes the helplessness of this character along with a delight at simple things. She evokes a bit of wry humor from Beatrice, which is a side of her we rarely see with her children.
Zindel seems to have taken much of the insight here from his own life experience with his absent father, his bitter mother, and her experience as a private duty nurse.
Congratulations to director Kathryn Walsh. Her ability to bring this emotionally deep story to life was incredible. She also managed the thrust stage confines well making the central staircase quite interesting as it positioned players up, down and on its various levels.
Friday night’s audience seemed transfixed by the play, by the close quarters afforded in the Elgood space, and by the astonishing portrayals that unfolded before them. There is smoking onstage but it’s not offensive and seems vented well. This is a heavy story – but it offers an insight into the negative impact life can have on some while others grow strong instead. Overall, it is a play about triumph, about hope, and about the ability to see past what IS to what ultimately can BE.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds continues at Flint Repertory Theatre through September 22. For more information and tickets contact the box office at 810-237-7333 or online at www.FlintRep.org