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Toxic brilliance

By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review

Families can be as toxic as radiation, playwright Paul Zindel tells us in “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” playing through Sept. 24 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.

Rob Lutfy directs this seldom-done piece.

(l to r) DeAnna Driscoll, Abby DePuy and Rachel Esther Tate (Photo by Daren Scott)

Beatrice (DeAnna Driscoll) is the kind of mother no one wants but many people have. Disappointed in life — she blames it on marrying the wrong man — the widowed Beatrice takes it out on her teenage daughters in the form of casual insults and threats to get rid of their pet rabbit Peter.

Beatrice also has an active imagination, concocting many crazy get-rich schemes such as opening a tea shop in the house.

Credit set designer Charles Murdock Lucas for the amazing and cluttered former vegetable market they call home, with knickknacks in every cranny and newspapers over windows and door.

Tillie (Abby DePuy) is a science whiz at school — when she gets there. Mom frequently makes her stay home to tend to chores, and sometimes to take care of Nanny (Carm Greco), the elderly boarder who seems to provide Beatrice’s only source of income. Tillie is unconcerned about fashion, but fascinated with things scientific, even down to atoms, which she calls “beautiful.”

Tillie is working on a science fair project that involves exposing marigolds to radiation to record the effects. She finds (in the play’s metaphor) that it stunts the growth of some, while others mutate in interesting ways.

But Tillie is shy and a social bust, according to older sister Ruth (Rachel Esther Tate), who makes fun of (and is indeed sometimes embarrassed by) her sister’s lack of social grace. But while Ruth has her own problems (fainting spells and nightmares since her father died) and is withering under the negativity that emanates from her mother, Tillie seems determined to reach beyond that barrier to the stars.

(l to r) Rachel Esther Tate, Abby DePuy and DeAnna Driscoll (Photo by Daren Scott)

“Marigolds,” one of few plays with an all-female cast, opened in 1964 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1971. Zindel also wrote many novels for the young-adult market, but is probably best known for this play. The title refers to an actual experiment performed by a student of one-time high-school teacher Zindel.

“Marigolds” is a bit like a train wreck — difficult to watch, but impossible to look away from. The show is anchored by Driscoll’s fearless, committed performance as the gorgon who, despite what she says and does, is clearly stunted herself, and doing the best she can as mother and caregiver.

Young newcomer DePuy is excellent in her first professional nonmusical role as Tillie, the young dreamer who loves the notion that we are made of the same stuff as the stars.

Tate is also impressive as older sister Ruth, who unfortunately seems to be adopting some of her mother’s attitudes and habits.

Michelle Marie Trester offers the show’s welcome comic relief as student Janice, describing how she acquired the cat skeleton she displays in the school’s science fair.

Carm Greco is touching as the elderly Nanny, target of still more predictable verbal abuse from Beatrice.

Kevin Anthenill and Conor Mulligan make solid contributions in sound and lighting, especially when Tillie is talking about the stars.

The stars may not seem quite far enough away from this particular mother, but kudos to director Rob Lutfy and his terrific cast for bringing this seldom-done prize-winner to Cygnet.

—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at infodame@cox.net.

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