Fringe review: The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds

Sadie Bowling, Kate Ryan, Emma Wilmott in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds. Photo by db photographics.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The Effect of Gamma Rays On Man In The Moon Marigolds (Stage 3, Walterdale Theatre)

At the centre of this ‘60s play (and 1971 Pulitzer Prize winner) by the American writer Paul Zindel, is a mom that makes bad mothers everywhere — Amanda Wingfield to Mama Rose to Medea — look like Hallmark contenders.

Beatrice Hunsdorfer has a nasty streak, a short fuse, and a sardonic edge that could cut through tile. She threatens to commit one daughter, Ruth, who suffers from seizures. The other, Tillie, who’s fascinated by science, is “let’s face it, not a pretty girl.” They are “stones around her neck.”

She showers the ancient and unresponsive $50-a-week lodger, who may or may not be deaf, with verbal tirades. “Quite the little cross to bear aren’t ya, Nanny?” She waves a chloroform bottle in the direction of Tillie’s beloved pet rabbit from time to time.

This is the juicy, dramatic villain’s role that Kate Ryan takes on in Amy DeFelice’s production, a rare departure for The Plain Janes from their usual musical theatre repertoire. It’s a far cry from the more wholesome lustre of Ryan’s usual leading lady roles. And Ryan, who played the daughter Ruth in an all-Ryan production 31 years ago (with her mother Maralyn, her sister Bridget, and directed by her father Tim), makes a meal of it. 

I say villain, but what Ryan really delivers is a portrait of disappointment and despair gone rancid. Beatrice, a damaged soul, spreads damages around her as she rampages through her end-of-the-world Staten Island apartment, tending her own grievances and paranoia as she goes.

The central metaphor, as per the title and Tillie’s science project, isn’t exactly hidden from view in Zindel’s play: proximity to dangerous radiation creates mutations. And that can go either way.  Ruth (Emma Wilmott), who’s already taken on some of her mother’s nastiness, is clearly damaged by the toxicity. But quiet, shy, determined little Tillie (Sadie Bowling) unexpectedly blossoms against the odds, like her strange marigolds.

There’s a big wide world of discovery out there, full of molecules and atoms. And she can’t be contained, as Tillie’s ecstatic presentations confirm.

It’s a family dysfunction play with old-fashioned clutter about it, set-pieces, lots of exits and entrances, and a certain artifice about its bookend structure the production does nothing to conceal. But it still packs a wallop. And when you see Bowling’s Tillie escape from her domestic chains you feel like cheering. 

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