All it takes is one bad seed.
In Paul Zindel’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” that miscreant is mother Beatrice Hunsdorfer, a scornful woman ruined by an unwanted life and, in turn, resentful of her young daughters, Ruth and Tillie. She is a disaster waiting to un-happen.
Loraine O’Donnell directs a nearly chilling production of Zindel’s 1964 play, which won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for drama, in the New Phoenix Theatre. It is an October story, unsettling and unjust, told in an equally macabre space. Shadows lurk in this Johnson Park theater just as they do on Chris Cavanagh’s decrepit set, and just as they do in the windy brush outside. This is an ominous piece, a cautionary tale for all those unbroken by life, to date: Own your decisions and accept their repercussions. Don’t be your own ghost.
Zindel’s play is Shakespearean in this way, bringing to mind plenty of other tragic triangles. “Gypsy” is all too obvious a cousin. Slovenly Beatrice praises the prettier daughter and scorns the smarter one, but really despises both. At least Mama Rose could get herself dressed.
O’Donnell’s production hits many right notes. She casts this tale in haunting light, opening and closing with an empty glow around the talented Tillie, whose science homework has her growing radioactive flowers in the living room. Arin Lee Dandes is our Tillie, which is a good thing because this part could go either way: Make Tillie too confident of her abilities and she gives her wretched mother an impulse to lash out, make her too little and she can’t own her pride. Dandes walks beautifully between these unfair scenarios and remains in her own light, when it’s both dim and just brighter than dim.
Anne Roaldi Boucher is Ruth, the seemingly prettier of the two daughters (though both actresses are; perhaps too much for the parts), whose confidence has arrogance and whose pain has fences. Boucher gives a wonderfully wilted performance here, one you can tell she’s been dying to give. That both Boucher and Dandes often play young girls, given their sizes and youthful energies, makes both of their performances that much more profound. These girls are far too old for their age, another nail in the coffin at the hand of their loveless Beatrice.
Which brings us back to mother. Betsy Bittar has the role of a lifetime, a part so entrenched in mythology and Freudianism that it could, or should, be approached academically. The play may be a dated piece of ’60s theater, but the role is timeless. Bittar does not survive Beatrice’s tidal wave, hard as she tries. From her entrance on, her attempts to appear disengaged emotionally register as creative disengagement.
Bittar always has been an enunciator, which can be right for a part, but there’s nothing about Beatrice’s gross home, unkempt hair or disrobed robe that warrants such a precise tongue. This brightness works only in sarcasm, which comes up in Beatrice’s gnarly wit quite often. We can see Bittar let go of her conventions but two or three times, in her much-improved second act, when in a rage, she goes off page mentally, and the words appear to fly out of her mouth. These are glorious moments, when both actress and character dance toward the edge of freedom, but alas, they’re only moments.
It’s an unfortunate letdown, even when it’s so apparent that Bittar is reaching for gold. So much else in this production works well, from Diane M. Cammerata’s silent but fierce portrayal of an elderly intake, to Zoe Diana’s hilarious two-minute debut as a science fair competitor, to Tom Makar’s sound design and his use of Bella Bartok’s elegant piano. Apparent reminders in a play about decisions, and the radical effects those choices can breed.
What: “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds”
Where: New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 N. Johnson Park
When: Through Nov. 9
Info: 853-1334 or www.newphoenixtheatre.org