Who knew motherhood could be the worst possible time in the world? Who knew science could open up cloudy vistas into the shrouded soul? Who knew that love and compassion were incompatible? Apparently playwright Paul Zindel knew all of this to be true. In his rarely seen play, "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds," written and produced 47 years ago in an unforgettable presentation starring Sada Thompson all of those questions were answered with a resounding "me, that's who."
It won a slew of awards, played off-Broadway for 819 performances and helped to make a star of Swoosie Kurtz, Pamela Payton-Wright, Sada Thompson, Judith Lowry, and sparked performances from Joan Blondell and Cathryn Damon. It won the Pulitzer Prize for its author. Eight years later it was revived on Broadway with Shelley Winters and Carol Kane. Directed by A.J. Antoon it only ran for 16 performances. Since then it has been reserved, primarily, for girls schools to produce.
Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, New York, has brought it back to life on the professional stage and the results of their work, under the skilled and effective direction of Steven Patterson, is sensational, riveting and relevant. This forceful tale of an embittered and possibly dangerously ill woman and her two deeply disturbed daughters has been placed in the hands of a talented troupe of players who wring from this half-century old piece a modern morality tale that truly touches the mind and the heart in equal measure.
Poverty is not an easy state in which to live. Beatrice, played here by Roxanne Fay, cannot abide this condition and so she does what any irrational person would do, she ignores it. In the exact same way she ignores her responsibilities to both of her children, the epileptic Ruth and her obsessive younger daughter, Tillie. Ruth, played by Kalia Lay, is a typical teenager obsessed more with the social aspects of her life than with her scholarly pursuits and is a constant trial to Beatrice. Tillie, the younger - played by Lindsay Cahill, is more introverted, depends upon her relationship with a pet rabbit for solace and security and turns to science studies in an effort to prove her worth. Living with this trio is a mute older woman played by Doris Siepel, known simply as Nanny, who is a trustee, a woman placed in this home for care and security, a clear error in judgement by the deciding magistrate who should be taken out and hung for cruelty to the elderly. This is the quartet Zindel offers us in his examination of the human heart and the mind it's attached to for eternity.
Siepel plays her role in silence ignoring, we understand through her hearing deficiency, the mistreatment of the children by their mother. Siepel's passivity, her complete incapability to touch or be moved by the situation is sometimes riveting to watch. Representing, as she does, the factors of outside society, she brings into the house an impassable barrier to reaching the world. It is hard to ignore the symbolism of Nanny and Siepel gives the old woman a rough-hewn dignity that not even Beatrice can erase through her complete rejection of Nanny's mature presence.
Alexa Powell plays, for one scene only in the second act, a different sort of youngster presenting her own science project, one which might receive a prize that is clearly owed to Tillie. She does a lovely job in this role, almost the comic relief in a very heavy play, but still not quite taking on that role for her appearance is brief and spotlighted.
Lindsay Cahill, a recent high school graduate who has performed in musicals and, at Bridge Street, a role in George M. Cohan's "The Tavern," plays the sensitive and intelligent Tillie whose practical nature allows her to clean up the messes made by her older sister and her mother. She brings a spark into the darkness that surrounds Tillie. We hope for her. We silently pray for her knowing that she probably has no means of praying or of hoping. Cahill's softness encased in a hardening shell pierces through the moments of threat, the implied dangers forced onto her by Beatrice. It is an impressive piece of work, Cahill's Tillie. She plays this girl who won't be moved but who must be taken by the moment of success with direct reactions, with instant bursts of emotion that are instantly supressed. She captivates the heart and the mind.
As her sister Ruth, a girl of extremes, Kalia Lay is almost a parody of the realities she plays. This SUNY New Paltz graduate brings her additional years of experience into her role as a teenager and lets fly all of those bumps that a teenager can experience and inadvertently share with her parents. When she acts with anger, or envy, jealousy or resentment she is a sharply honed instrument of torture. When she shares her compassion it is done openly and fully. Ruth suffers from inner torment and when she can no longer bear her own behavior she suffers the result of her emotional and physical problems. The pain in Lay's performance feels real. Her work reflects her feelings.
Roxanne Fay's Beatrice not only holds the stage but actually seems to lay in the nails in the floorboards, slather on the mortar in the walls and glaze the window that reveals a blank world waiting to be painted to her own satisfaction. Beatrice has the practical down, but the world eludes her; she has nothing to paint there and nothing in hand to paint with either. This character is unique. I don't believe I have encountered anyone like this. She is unable to love, although she can caress and cosset and aim to make well again her older child when necessary. For her younger daughter she has no empathy at all, not even caring enough to congratulate her on a possible triumph in education, that cold place she herself inhabits where tributes are presented with handshakes instead of hugs. Beatrice cannot even venture that far. She has a temper that brings her into the darkest of decisions.
Fay comes at her character with an embarrassment of physical and vocal traits that allow her character to retain that distance without giving an inch of presence. The dichotomous nature of Beatrice is a challenge like no other, not even a Rosalind or an unfeeling Galatea. Fay takes the challenge and ends up showing us a woman impossible to love, difficult to like and utterly unendurable who, after all is said and done, we must accept as much as we would any animal that comes limping into our presence. Fay leaves us wary of this woman, yet curious.
John Sowle's set and lighting are perfect for this play as are Michelle Rogers costumes and Carmen Borgia sound work. Steven Patterson, as noted, has had the difficult task of getting this play back onto its feet for us and with his company he has created a place and a time which we sit and hope and pray has not really existed, even knowing that this is most probably a private film of real people who did do and say and react the way that these woman do for us. It is something of a triumph for the director to have given us the life of Beatrice as it is and not softened or muted or mutated in any way.
I remember loving Sada Thompson's work in this role all those years ago. It made me eager to see this play again now. This version will make me hungry for some other presentation in a decade or so. For now, this play in Catskill has given me more than the sum of its individual's parts. You cannot ask for more.
Kalia Lay, Lindsay Cahill; photo: John Sowle
Lindsay Cahill, Doris Siepel; photo: John Sowle
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds plays at Bridge Street Theatre, 44 W. Bridge Street, Catskill, NY through July 16. For tickets and information call the box office at 800-838-3006 or go to bridgestreettheatre.org.