Mr. Goodman and his colleagues at the local high school are convinced Beatrice Hunsdorfer is insane. Every time she calls the school, she’s either too syrupy-calm or tongue-ablaze raving. Does she love her daughters — introverted Tillie and hair-trigger Ruth — or hate them? Though most of the faculty has never seen her, they call Beatrice “Betty the Loon.” But if they could see Paul Zindel’s Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, literally sit in the audience, they’d have to rethink their opinion.
Beatrice is definitely volcanic — make no mistake — but also achingly hurt, at times surprisingly tender, and far more difficult to label. Beatrice worshipped her father so much she put her identity in his hands. As a teenager, she took his vegetable wagon for a joy-ride. Disgusted, he said that if she ran the business “the vegetables would spoil and…nobody would buy anything.” The remark changed her life.
Convinced she would always be a complete failure, Beatrice never had a dream with a happy ending. She even tries to squelch her daughters’ dreams. Her wildfire narcissism’s such a negative force field, if she has to fall, she’ll take them down with her. This attitude has a flip side. You could say Beatrice actually means well. She stifles her daughters’ growth to shelter them from the pain of living. It didn’t work with 17-year-old Ruth. She suffered a nervous breakdown under her mother’s lockstep control. Now Ruth has epileptic fits, dresses promiscuously at school, and perpetuates the cycle of abuse.
Fourteen-year-old Tillie’s the opposite. Where Ruth has almost no attention span, Tillie could study a subject for hours, be it an atom or the universe. Tillie can shut out the circus of dysfunction around her. Beatrice loathes that inner calm. Plus, Tillie’s the only Hunsdsorfer who can see beyond herself and beyond their ramshackle home. The former vegetable store has papered windows to keep the world at bay.
Gamma Rays won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971. Today, it’s dated enough to qualify as a period piece. The psychology’s vague: her father’s nasty look and a single comment triggered all of Beatrice’s woe? And Zindel bulges the text with clunky symbolism (Mr. Goodman, the chemistry teacher, is a “good man”; Beatrice’s father Frank was too “frank” — get it?). And the “half-life” of Cobalt 60 defines Beatrice’s “half”-life, and the one she foists on her daughters. The title has the biggest symbol. Tillie’s experimenting with radiation on marigolds for a science fair: too little has no effect; too much fries them; but a measured amount could inspire infinite, never-ending connections.
The play puts three people — three and a half, counting mute Nanny — in a room for two acts. To break from naturalism and give it more symbolic scope, Zindel calls for German expressionistic elements: mystical voice-overs, glaringly spotlit characters. It’s as if Zindel feared the script couldn’t succeed on its own. But it can. Gamma Rays unleashes the characters’ emotions from their core. Here, the writing’s as compelling as the symbolic effects are stagey. Like the musical Spring Awakening, the play’s always been popular with teenagers, since they see themselves as in a mirror.
Cygnet Theatre’s production is strong where the play is, but far too overstated where it isn’t. On first view the set’s a hoarder’s paradise with stacks and floppy piles of stuff. When the actors come on, however, the two-plus-story structure dwarfs them; they all but disappear. The lighting uses expressionistic effects, including flashing lights that domino across the walls. Combined, these elements give the stage picture a hefty size. But the environment should be so claustrophobic it feels like a pressure cooker.
The script calls for Tillie to speak off-stage voice-overs. Director Rob Lutfy smartly puts her downstage center. She talks to the audience directly, which personalizes her beyond her surroundings. A more questionable move: Zindel wants scenes to end with blackouts, a manic, serrated quality. Instead, the director inserted brief, balletic sequences where the trio unites gracefully. Though visually appealing, the sequences undercut building tensions.
These non-naturalistic elements would collapse the production if a lesser actor than Deanna Driscoll played Beatrice. Many greats have done the role — Sada Thompson, Shelley Winters, and Joanne Woodward, among them — and others have shied away from its exhausting demands. In a bravura performance, Driscoll’s a mercurial bully, clueless while convinced she’s certain, fearsome. Yet, when she soothes Ruth’s fears in a thunderstorm, she becomes eerily gentle, even fragile. Throughout, Driscoll’s an amazing, moment-to-moment actor. Lovers of craft may want to follow how she does it. But Driscoll deflects any sense of a performance. It’s as if Beatrice Hunsdorfer’s at Cygnet Theatre to show those high school teachers she’s so much more than “Betty the Loon.” She might even change her ways completely.
Directed by Rob Lutfy: Deanna Driscoll, Abby Depuy, Carm Greco, Rachel Esther Tate, Michelle Marie Trester; scenic design, Charles Murdock Lucas, costumes, Shelly Williams, lighting, Conor Mulligan,, sound, Kevin Anthenill.
Playing through September 24: Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.; cygnettheatre.com