SAN DIEGO — "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-inthe-Moon Marigolds" can be stunning, causing the blossoms to burst forth into extraordinary size and beauty. Or it can kill them.
That's the metaphorical truth revealed by Paul Zindel's domestic drama, a searing play about new lives struggling to find fertile ground amid the debris of a parent's failing, fading mental landscape.
A moving production of Zindel's play directed by Ginny-Lynn Safford opened Thursday at the Bowery Theatre. It boasts a cast of five actresses and one rabbit, all carrying out the playwright's exploration of the life force with admirable sensitivity.
Although the script is not specific, the play seems to be set in the '60s, shortly before Zindel's autobiographical work first grabbed the public's--and the award-givers'--attention.
The scene is the shabby household of Beatrice Hunsdorfer (Linda Libby), a nightmare mother who doesn't appear to abuse her two teen-age daughters physically, but whose mind snapped something loose long ago.
The torment endured by the two girls is an emotional one, a constant battering by the outflung neuroses of their slovenly, widowed mother, who has made their home a hellish scene of cluttered domesticity, a place where elderly boarders support the three, but sometimes die in the next room. Dreams of a new beginning are ever-present--and quickly swatted down by Beatrice's unpredictable swings of temperament.
Libby plays the character closer to the dark side than Joanne Woodward's performance in the mediocre film version of Zindel's play. Libby is more of the school of Sada Thompson (who played the role on stage), gathering up the character in ragged sweaters and unbuttoned housedresses, ratty hair and garish makeup, and letting more than her slip be revealed.
Beatrice is not meant to be the star of this play. She is the force of oppression, the unpredictable hand that might suddenly strike out any light that shines into the three women's lives, covering it over with deep-seated fears like the newspapers she has taped across her kitchen windows.
The eldest daughter, Ruth (Stephanie Saft), has been frightened into her own convulsive mental collapse, adding strength to the local gossip that the whole family is made up of "loons." Saft clearly reveals all of Ruth's facets: the low-class promiscuity, the moments of clarity, the hints of hysteria and total mental disarray.
The miracle here--the marigold blossom that just might make it--is Tillie. Pale, timid, kept from her beloved science classes by her mother's irrational demands that she stay home to help out, Tillie is Zindel's centerpiece.
She opens the play with a serene poetic monologue about the discovery she has made in science class--the cosmic truth that she is a creature made up of glorious, timeless bits of life force called atoms. Clairemarie Ghelardi is perfect for the role, so tentative and fragile that the hints of strength revealed in the character as the play moves along are surprising and hope-inspiring.
Science transcends her mother's misery. It is a source of comfort and freedom, the only tunnel of escape from the emotional and physical death infusing Tillie's precarious home life.
Yet Zindel has planted a sobering warning in the science experiment that wins first place for Tillie in the high school science fair and forces Beatrice and Ruth around another turn in their own lives.
As the young girl reverently explains, some of the seeds exposed to the radiation of cobalt 60 bloomed forth radiantly under the effects of this extreme catalyst. But those that were too close to the source of radiation died.
The playwright lays out both directions for Tillie. She has a 50/50 chance of survival at the play's end, with incredible odds against her and a brilliant inner light urging her on.
Betty Matthews brings a gruesome kind of humor into the play as Janice Vickery, Tillie's cat-skinning science fair competition. Jeanie Von Klau completes the cast in the non-speaking role of Nanny, the elderly boarder subjected to the worst of Beatrice's condescending taunts.
Lawrence Czoka's cosmic Tinkerbell music works beautifully with Tillie's monologues. Her recorded voicings match the feeling with just the right echo. There are only a few places where Czoka gets carried away with the original score, ending some of the quick-paced scenes with too much soap-opera fanfare.
Erik Hanson's scrubby linoleum, cheap carpet, orange crates and clutter are well-suited to Beatrice's chaotic state of mind. J.A. Roth's lighting works well enough to evoke the high-school setting all on its own. Tillie and Beatrice's drab dresses and Ruth's clingy skirts and sweaters, put together by costumer Ingrid Helton, reflect both the dim confusion and tacky flamboyance of these unstable lives.
Once again, fine acting confirms the Bowery's reputation for intense revelations of human circumstance, brought out by the best of local talent. "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" stirs the emotional kettle, but, as Tillie discovers, there is an unknown factor, a ray of hope to lead the way out.
"THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS" By Paul Zindel. Directed by Ginny Lynn Safford. Set design and property master, Erik Hanson. Costume design by Ingrid Helton. Lighting design by J.A. Roth. Original music and sound design by Lawrence Czoka. With Clairemarie Ghelardi, Linda Libby, Stephanie Saft, Jeanie von Klau, Betty Matthews. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. through Sept. 28 at the Bowery Theatre, 480 Elm St., San Diego.