Left to right: Deanna Driscoll, Abby Depuy and Rachel Esther Tate in "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds." Photo by Daren Scott
You’ve got to feel for Tillie Hunsdorfer, the teenaged science prodigy in Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Her mother Beatrice is severely depressed, bitter and remorselessly mean. Her sister Ruth is afflicted with both physical and emotional problems. The household boarder is a frail old woman who moves via walker and never speaks. That Tillie, a gentle and dreamy presence, does more than merely survive this misery is the salvation of this despairing and often brutal story.
Cygnet Theatre’s production of Zindel’s play – it failed on Broadway but won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize and became a well-respected film a year later – spares none of the script’s harsh realities or cruelties. Gamma Rays … is not escapist entertainment. But director Rob Lutfy sensitively directs a stalwart cast. Deanna Driscoll commits heart and soul to the deep-seated complexities of Beatrice, who is at once narcissistic and self-loathing, a person painfully starving for love but unable to give it. Driscoll’s unselfconscious performance is also a brave one. Though the daughters are narrative satellites of the Beatrice character, both Rachel Esther Tate as Ruth and Abby Depuy as Tillie distinguish themselves fearlessly as well, with Tate’s harrowing mania as the older daughter making for some of the evening’s most unsettling moments.
The play’s memorably unwieldy title refers to Tillie’s science project: exposing marigolds to radioactivity and assessing the results. For Tillie, the experience is one of otherworldly wonder, and given her family she needs another world. Her profound relationship to her project is emphasized in recurrent sequences that are softly and thoughtfully choreographed.
Gamma Rays … plays out on an appropriately messy set by Charles Murdock Lucas (with properties designed by Rachel Hengst) that evokes both the grim truths and prevailing hopelessness of the Hunsdorfer household. Their domain is not one you’d wish to visit in real life, and you hope that the real-life Tillies out there who do occupy them find their freedom and their joy someday. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 9/6/17.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.