In order to understand the play and, for that matter, the title, it is necessary to take a trip down memory lane. Think back to the long lost days of high school (or middle school) and the ever-popular science fair. Most science fairs had at least one project where the growth of a plant under different conditions was explored. Tillie (Olamipe I. Okunseinde ’04), the play’s protagonist, is a high school student fascinated by science. To explore this interest, she enters the science fair with a project that gives the play its title.
The play, however, is not about Tillie’s project, but rather the abusive atmosphere of her family. Though quiet and meek, Tille struggles against her resentful mother and dreams of a career exploring the mysteries of the atom. Her mother, Beatrice (Sharon O. Doku ’05), is a broken woman whose difficult life has caged her in their small, squalid home. Because she resents her fate, she terrorizes Tillie, her other daughter, Ruth (Sasha G. Weiss ’05), and the decrepit old boarder for whom she cares (Megan L. Gaffney ’02).
Despite the sluggish progression of the plot and the generally mundane dialogue, the performers enliven a play that tends towards death by boredom. Though the Effects of Gamma Rays on the audience could easily have been sleep, the talented cast rescued the production. Particularly noteworthy are the performances of Doku and Okunseinde.
Doku captures Beatrice’s rage, cruelty and hopelessness quite well. Her sarcastic delivery of (the few) humorous lines helps to bring back the audience’s attention, especially during slow scenes.
Okunseinde also presents an intriguing character in Tillie. Her most remarkable scene occurs when an emotional outburst culminates in Beatrice knocking Tillie to the ground. Okunseinde’s fall is so realistic (and loud) that the audience gasps. Her emotion in the scene is deeply affecting.
The distinguished technical elements help the production. Alexandra K. Levin ’04 designed an interesting set, which depicts the filth and clutter of the family home with wonderful attention to detail. The mismatched furniture, empty beer bottles and extensive collection of old newspapers appropriately set the mood. The jazzy music accompaniment, provided by Ryan W. Blum ’04 and Alex D. Gordon ’04, adds an appealing element to the production, amplifying the tense moments in the dialogue.
The talent of those involved on and off stage manages to salvage a mediocre play and should be appreciated in itself. However, the creation of the Athena Theater Company and its continuing mission also deserves recognition. The company was founded earlier this year by Julia H. Fawcett ’04, Julia C. Reischel ’04 and Heather J. Thomason ’03, and the program explains that the company “stages plays pertinent to women, as well as hosting social events and promoting open discussion of theater and women’s issues on campus.” This is an important function, for as the company website states, “Although more women than men audition for Harvard productions, most plays feature more available male roles.”
Athena’s maiden production succeeds, then, as a new vehicle to demonstrate the talents of women in the theater community. All those involved with the production acquit themselves nicely but leave one wishing that Athena had chosen a more dynamic piece with which to make its debut.
Nevertheless, while the play is not the best possible showcase for the company members, Athena holds the promise of future success. If the members build on the positive aspects of their first show (and select better dramatic material), then Harvard should be blessed with stellar productions and an effective woman’s organization for years to come.