Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is not an easy one to watch, and, similarly, can’t be an easy one in which to perform. The characters hurt one another because they, themselves, are in pain, and the pain they put one another through is realistic enough that we cringe empathetically at the sight of it, wanting escape for both ourselves and the characters. None of this would work in a poor production; luckily, Bridge Street Theatre’s version, directed with a firm hand by Steven Patterson, is very rich.
Beatrice (Roxanne Fay) lives with her two daughters, outgoing and mentally unstable Ruth (Kalia Lay) and quiet and intelligent Tillie (Lindsay Cahill). Beatrice is an unhappy woman; her husband divorced her, then died, she has very little money, so is forced to take in boarders – the most recent of whom is Nanny (Doris Seipel) – who are of ill-health and keep dying, and she is green with envy, believing she has been cheated out of the “something more” everyone else seems to have. Her self-loathing spills out onto Tillie and Nanny to the point of abuse. Tillie is chosen as a finalist in the school science fair for her experiment with marigolds grown from seeds treated with radiation, and Beatrice is expected to go to school with her for the competition, but her past comes back to haunt her.
Fay has an almost impossible job here – Beatrice’s character has no redeeming qualities. I wanted so badly to feel sorry for the woman, but Zindel’s script never gave me a chance to do so. Her actions made her irredeemable. Somehow, however, Fay makes this terrible character completely watchable, if only to keep an eye on her to see who she’s going to hurt next. Her work here was dangerously dark and tortured, which is some of the hardest as an actor, and all credit goes to her. Lay’s Ruth also had to be a tough character to tackle: both light and dark, in and out of control; she did a wonderful job and brought the few moments of levity of the evening to the stage. Cahill, as sweet, quiet Tillie, was heartbreaking. She was the one the audience wanted to save; we’ve all known a Tillie in our lives, bullied to silence, and we ached for her.
John Sowle’s set was perfection; it seemed to do double duty as both a home falling apart due to lack of funds as well as a memory, perhaps Tillie’s, with light coming through the cracks and things just a bit off-kilter, maybe due to the radioactivity of the memories themselves.
We go to the theater for many reasons: to be entertained, to learn, for enlightenment, to celebrate, to mourn. This show is dark, with very little light, even at the end of the tunnel, but it shows us the dark side, what’s just underneath, what’s behind us – and there’s a place for this, too, as you can’t have the light without the dark.
“The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” Bridge Street Theatre, 44 West Bridge St., Catskill, through July 16, $25-$10, Runtime: 95 minutes with a 15-minute intermission, bridgestreettheatre.org