Pulitzer Prize winning The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds playing May 3rd to May 18th in Essex, directed by Adam Cunningham.

By: May. 02, 2024
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Essex Community Players presents Paul Zindel’s 1971 Pulitzer Prize winning play "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” at Memorial Hall in Essex. Zindel's play is an affecting dramatic journey into the lives of an intriguing but dysfunctional family; a single parent, Beatrice, and her two daughters, Ruth and Tillie, set in the 1950’s.

The story revolves around a mother’s crushing struggle for sanity while grappling with economic and social realities that seem stacked against her, and her youngest daughter’s science project growing marigolds from seeds that have been exposed to radiation, or “gamma rays”. As Beatrice’s parenting to her high-school daughters veers wildly from prideful caring to cruel threats, the tempestuous older daughter Ruth is plagued with epilepsy and nightmares, but the younger daughter, Tillie, stays strong through her mother’s onslaughts. She shows an ability to thrive even with a toxic home life, in a way similar to the marigolds in her science experiment, which survive radiation exposure and produce beautiful flowers.  Her resilience is the bright light at the heart of the play.

Director Adam Cunningham leads the small, talented cast in an emotional journey through this complex and compelling play. His vision of the play is that it is “about a bitter, alcoholic, single mother, Beatrice, raising two daughters and living at the edge of poverty in a small community. Her dysfunction and toxicity have rendered her incapable of recognizing the world as it is. All she sees is recrimination, shame, and guilt, which crush her ability to love and nurture….but more importantly, Tillie is gifted with the ability to forgive and love without judgment. And that is what truly saves her in the end”. Cunningham’s vision and aesthetic acuity steers the actor’s performances through the manic highs and desperate lows of the characters and amazingly back again to their shared sense of being a family despite the craziness.  Cunningham makes effective use of the space by placing most of the action of the play on the floor of the theatre, intensifying the intimate nature of the play.

Linda Iannuzzi’s penetrating portrayal of Beatrice swerves from rage to contempt for life to brooding ruminations. She stalks the stage in a bathrobe, and compels our attention as anticipation grows for the inevitable collusion of her delusions with reality.

Beatrice’s youngest daughter Tillie is played by Violet Chamberlin, who brings a wide-eyed innocence to the role and an endearing fragility belying the strength that helps her to withstand her mother’s onslaughts.

Nathalie Stapleton’s fine performance as Ruth, the older daughter and the primary target of her mother’s rage, is remarkable in her resistance to Beatrice’s onslaughts. In contrast to Tillie, Ruth fights back against her mother. Ruth tries to defend Tillie against her mother, but pays a price with her mental and physical health.

Louise J. Mueller plays Nanny, the mute elderly boarder who receives unceasing vitriol from Beatrice. Using only expressive movement, she effectively portrays Nanny’s powerlessness and dignity as she navigates her way to the kitchen on her walker, so Beatrice can give her hot water with honey. Mueller simultaneously evokes our pity and respect as Nanny withstands Beatrice’s hostility.

Nadiene Hanson-Metayer’s performance as Janice Vickery is effervescent as she portrays Tillie’s competitor at the science fair as a immodest teenager who is gleeful about her gory science project.

The family’s apartment is a converted vegetable goods store from the 1800’s.  Beth Wilbur’s attractive set design and Gina Roberge’s costumes convincingly immerse the stage in the 1950’s, and props by Kathy Barickman and Lindsey Repka show extensive attention to detail. Along with Cheryl Owens Set Dec, the eye-pleasing stage set could not be more appropriate for this period piece.  Stage manager Louise Richmond commented “There’s a lot of vintage type things, chips containers and ash trays. The kitchen is phenomenal, there’s lots of things there that belong in a 1950’s type of kitchen”. 

Lighting and sound design by Essex Community Players (ECP) veteran Don MacKechnie uses color and sound effectively to create the discordant atmosphere of the home, while illuminating the many interesting period props onstage, as well the expansive set, constructed by a crew of community volunteers led by Ed Wilbur.

“The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” is an emotionally difficult play, with Beatrice caught in unresolved trauma that, according to director Adam Cunningham, leaves her “trapped in a hall of mirrors”. But Tillie’s fortitude is uplifting, because despite her family’s disasters, Tillie’s love of science leads her to a love of life that empowers her to endure the challenges of her home life.

Produced by Holly Biracree, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds opens Friday, May 3rd and runs through Saturday, May 18th. Show times are Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 and Sunday matinees at 2:00.

Photo. L to R: Louise J. Mueller, Nathalie Stapleton, Linda Ianuzzi, Nadiene Hanson-Metayer, Violet Chamberlin. Credit: Holly Biracree.


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