The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds
Paul Zindel's play about regret and its devastating consequences is something of an American classic. The Boston Center for American Performance, mounting "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" as its fifth season opener, reminds audiences of why.
Director Jim Petosa delicately coaxes layers of fury, fear, sadness -- and yes, even love -- from Zindel's story, bringing us four woman as caged by their feelings as the pet rabbit kept by irrepressibly smart daughter Tillie (a wonderfully versatile Celia Pain). Tillie dwells in a run-down house of emotionally abusive horrors with her mother, older sister, and an elderly lodger (Lorne Batman) who clanks her way in and out with a Zimmer frame like an especially noisome ghost.
The house is a place of old dreads never surrendered: newspaper covers the windows, and the walls and furniture have a charred, distressed look. The walls look like a cyclone in progress, embedded with bits of furniture and debris; scenic designer Andrea Nice has dropped us square into the frazzled, tumultuous collective psyches of the play's characters, and her design works all the better for this production's theater-in-the-round staging. Indeed, the raggedly papered walls bear more than a little resemblance to the rabbit's makeshift hutch, also lined with tattered paper. Happy people do not live here.
Despite the gloom and wreckage of her home, Tillie's mother, Beatrice (a seething, nuanced Paula Langton), has little interest in the world outside her door; for that matter, she seems to have little interest in the house she keeps or the people in it, other than to complain and harangue. Her own life, she sneers at Tillie, as the girl clutches a packet of irradiated marigold seeds, is as good an example of a "half life" as any radioactive isotope. It's a more than apt comparison, because it's Beatrice who sets the tone, and her own lingering emotional scars that bind and coarsen life for everyone around her.
While Beatrice drags around in a tattered robe, elder daughter Ruth (Casey Tucker, in a performance both acerbic and vulnerable) tarts herself up with scarlet lipstick. Ruth is a live wire -- too much so; she's given to wild chatter and lurid gossip. Always listening for weakness or sensitive information, Ruth has a way of figuring out just where to strike, and then hitting hard.
But Ruth has her traumas, too. Strong upset can plunge her into epileptic fits, and her sleep is troubled by nightmarish flashbacks to the time she discovered the corpse of an earlier elderly tenant. There's a sense of some deeper issue, as well, something only hinted at; her parents' unhappy marriage and eventual divorce, perhaps, or her father's untimely death. Maybe it's years spent in the same house as Beatrice, who was once vivacious and lovely herself, but who has long been in full retreat from a world that mocks and misunderstands her.
Be that as it may, Beatrice also has a talent for tenderness when it's needed; in a scene that balances the karmic scales, Beatrice comforts Ruth after a nightmare even as the power fails and a midnight storm rages. Lightning strikes outside, and its glow lights up the anxieties that surround this small, troubled family: The stage is lined with illustrations of wide eyes, some furtive and probing, some terrified. Images of clocks mingle with these eyes, summoning the dread of time's constant march toward age, irretrievable loss, the unknown realm of death. For those incapable of letting go of the past, with all its jolts and disappointments, the future loses its prospects for happiness and becomes a grim waiting game for the next disaster.
That's where Tillie, with her love of learning and her soaring contemplations of the universe, parts company with Beatrice. Tillie not only knows about things like the creation of carbon in stars that burned long before our own; she also comprehends the philosophical wonders of the fact, ruminating on how the particles of her own body once danced in a sun's fiery heart. If we came from light, why must the future hold such dread and darkness?
This ensemble is one of the best of the season so far, with each actor playing off the others with symphonic resonance. There are hints as to the play's vintage (it's nearly fifty years old), but its emotional core is timeless -- its half life, you might say, is very long indeed.
"The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" continues through Nov. 18 at Boston University Theatre, Lane-Comely Studio 210, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston. For more tickets and more information, please visit bu.edu/cfa/bcap