After last Tuesday night's opening of Paul Zindel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Asaad Kelada, the director, asked the audience for feedback. The praise he received was lavish and well-deserved. "It's the most professional non-equity production I've seen," said a young actress who was visiting from New York. "I haven't been so moved by a dramatic experience in years," another woman said. The Cassius Carter production of this very difficult play to stage in theatre in the round was indeed stunning, revealing the brilliance and sensitivity of Kelada, a director San Diego is most fortunate to have. And the discussion afterwards, the warmest and most intimate I've yet encountered at the Cassius Carter, showed us just what an articulate, intelligent, and engaging man the attractive Kelada is.
The title of the play is misleading. In its apparent zaniness it recalls Tom Wolfe's rollicking Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby: you can never get that title straight, and the point is that it doesn't matter if you mix it up. But The Effect of Gamma Rays is a deadly serious and compelling play, and although we laugh throughout, sometimes against our will, the humor is biting and acrid, never exhuberant.
This is Tillie, the sweet and simple younger daughter who, encouraged by her science teacher, withdraws into a world of science, turning it into a life-sustaining fiction about the elements and the "atom" ("What a beautiful word," she says). She is capable of a kind of fairy tale wonder and creative reverie which is also productive: the title refers to her successful science fair project, As the shy and eager-to-please bright student, Lee Murphy with her frail body and soft, almost thin voice, is appropriately delicate. She sensitively conveys the miracle that we see at the end of the play. Having watched her mother's most serious breakdown to date, she is still able to dream.
Her mother, we learn, has a small reservoir of wonder hidden in her - we see it once in a beautifully lyric dream she relates to her other daughter, Ruth, neurotic and epileptic, But as her life was overcome by the dead weight of poverty and the fragments of exploded dreams, the Dream changed into a nightmare. Her projects arc no longer creative and pure, but sad, even morbid, moneymaking schemes (she thinks, for instance, of starting a nursing home in eight garages). She still retains an imaginative hold on life, however, although it is reduced to language — in almost one breath, for example, she can call Tillie's rabbit the "angora manure machine" and "cottontail compost heap." As Beatrice, Carole Marget gave an outstanding performance, moving swiftly from one of this woman's many moods to another. [ offer one suggestion. In her final scene it would be more in keeping with Beatrice's mercurial and complex character, I think, if she were alternately coldly savage, in perfect possession of herself, and lost in a fumbling despair. As Carole Marget plays her, she is almost solely the latter, drained and hating life.
The other girl is, unlike Tillie, her mother's daughter. Ruth, a sex-pot, is played with the proper hyper-energy by Eleanore Auerbacher, although she is perhaps too manic in the beginning of the play. She fights her mother viciously, knowing when and how to manipulate her, and yet is also generous and loving. It is Ruth, it is clear, who has been stunted by the gamma rays, a metaphor for the influences and impulses of the environment on human beings.
At the discussion after the play, the single negative comment about Gamma Rays was made by a UCSD sociologist who argued that the play (not the production, no one could fault it) was not convincing. Such a girl as Tillie, he said, couldn't emerge from the battering environment her mother had provided her. This is just the point, however, that Zindel is making. Influences are complex, not programmed; chaos can be creative; a given cause does not necessarily -produce a given effect. As Tillie believes, and Zindel hopes, "After radiation is better understood, a day will come when the power from exploding atoms will change the whole world we know. Some of the mutations will be good ones — wonderful things beyond our dreams."