San Diego Theater Review: THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS (Cygnet)

by Milo Shapiro on September 12, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

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THE EFFECT OF GOOD THEATER

“You know, maybe someday you will be pretty,” says Beatrice to her teenage daughter Tillie.  Gee, thanks, Mom.

Ah, mothers. The Glass Menagerie. Ordinary People. Carrie. Where would theater and film be without the power of dysfunctional mothers? Who better to yield fascinating children, be they adult or still young, than a mother who stunts their emotional health? Spend an evening with the Hunsdorfer family in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and you’ll certainly get your share of dramatic effects.

Tillie (Abby Depuy) is a sweet girl who loves school, especially science. Her experiment on radiation of plant seeds has the potential to elevate her from unpopular nerd to local celebrity—if she can win the school science fair after being nominated. This should be a great time in her life, were it not for the shaky tightrope she walks at home, due to her emotionally broken sister Ruth (Rachel Esther Tate) and her overbearing widowed mother Beatrice (Deanna Driscoll), who hurls vicious sarcasm at anyone in her path.

Beatrice’s blend of narcissism and self-loathing frequently undermines any motherly intentions. She makes fifty bucks a week by taking in an elderly invalid (Carm Greco as Nanny) who receives mild venom in comparison to the wrath put upon her daughters. Thus, school is where Tillie feels safest—when the embittered matron lets her attend, that is.

Paul Zindel’s masterful script, which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1971, builds so strongly that the script’s on-the-nose ending of hope leaves a bit to be desired, but that doesn’t mar this well-crafted piece, equally well-paced under Rob Lutfy’s skillful direction, which keeps us rapt by building pressure (what’s to become of Tillie’s pet rabbit, Peter?).

The look and feel of Cygnet Theatre’s production match the year the play was written, 1964, mostly evidenced by Shelley Williams’ costumes; the characters are just as relatable without modernizing the setting—this never feels like a period piece. Charles Murdock Lucas’s cluttered living room set adds to the tension, especially with Conor Mulligan’s exquisite lighting, which accentuates character moments and focal props.

The three main actresses leave a powerful impact. Appropriately, no one steals the show, as each woman has a shining moment, whether it’s a positive glow or a ball of thunder. Also memorable is the eleven o’clock monologue from the very funny Michelle Marie Trester as Janice, the queasy cat-skinner who is Tillie’s science fair competition.

Zindel, a science teacher who died in 2003, acknowledged that this play was semi-autobiographical and he grew up in a “house of fear.” Lufty and his cast create just that; it’s a haunting yet moving experience.

photos by Daren Scott

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds
Cygnet Theatre Company
Old Town Theater, 4040 Twiggs St.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on September 24, 2017
for tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit Cygnet

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