Science-project fiction

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

Tillie Hunsdorfer (Emma Pate) and her mother, Beatrice (La Ronda Etheridge), personify family dysfunction in <i>The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds</i>

Tillie Hunsdorfer (Emma Pate) and her mother, Beatrice (La Ronda Etheridge), personify family dysfunction in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

Photo By David Robert

Rated 3.0

Most people have had to do at least one school science project (or at least helped out with their kids’ projects). But what if your entire childhood was a science experiment—and your mother was the mad scientist? That’s the question at the heart of Brüka Theatre’s production of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.

In a cluttered, filthy apartment—halfheartedly converted from its former incarnation as a produce store—live the Hunsdorfer women. There’s Beatrice, the strident, bitter, alcoholic mother; Ruth, the melodramatic and deeply troubled older daughter; and Tillie, the quiet and studious younger daughter. Beatrice spends her days scuffing around the apartment in dirty pajamas, snarling acid remarks at her daughters and dreaming up one unlikely get-rich-quick scheme after another. Ruth tries hard to be a smart-mouthed, sullen delinquent, but her recurring nightmares and anxiety-induced convulsions give lie to her tough façade, revealing the unhappy girl within.

While Beatrice and Ruth squabble and spar, Tillie keeps to herself, devoting all her attention to her science experiments and her pet rabbit, Peter—and, by extension, her science teacher, Mr. Goodman, whom she idolizes. Beatrice is too absorbed in her own plans and disappointments to take much notice of either daughter, but, when Tillie’s academic achievements gain recognition, Beatrice is forced to confront her own failed life—with disastrous results.

The script is written by Paul Zindel, an author known for his novels about teens grappling with the difficult transition to adulthood. Here, Zindel explores the ideas that exposure to harmful conditions can actually strengthen one’s character, and beauty and goodness can spring from the unlikeliest of settings—a theme illustrated with Tillie’s experimental marigolds, which grow larger and stronger when exposed to harmful radioactivity. Beatrice is the source of the destructive energy that poisons the entire family, but years of enduring her bitter rage may end up making Tillie a better person. Too much exposure to gamma rays, however, causes the marigolds to wither and die; likewise, it’s too late for Ruth, who has unhappily accepted the world’s (and Beatrice’s) unflattering assessment of her.

La Ronda Etheridge gives an excellent performance as Beatrice. It’s not easy to boil with rage for two hours straight, but Etheridge manages it, tossing off her lines with sneering, contemptuous vitriol. Annie Austin, as Ruth, is also enjoyable to watch as she switches abruptly from aggressive posturing to tearful vulnerability without sacrificing believability. Emma Pate doesn’t get to do much with the role of Tillie, but her stoic, matter-of-fact character anchors the play and provides some much-needed relief from the melodrama of Beatrice and Ruth. Also noteworthy is the creatively squalid set, a cluttered, chaotic mess of old newspapers, dirty dishes, ugly vintage furniture and useless junk—the perfect setting for such a dysfunctional family.

Don’t look for any easy resolutions or lessons learned at the conclusion of this play; Gamma Rays is a dark and disturbing glimpse into a twisted, emotionally stunted family who may not ever be able to undo the damage they’ve done to each other. Still, the worse things get, the more you hope that the Hunsdorfers will manage to take a cue from Tillie’s Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and grow strong in spite of their poisoned soil.