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Theatre Atomic Flowers

By Frank Rich

"The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marlgolds," at the New Theatre, Cambridge, through May 23

COULD there possibly be room in our lives for yet one more well-made American play about a middle-aged bitch? My God, I'm here to tell you that I think there is.

The work in question is Paul Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and it is nothing more or less than the story of a domineering woman and her smothered loved ones. This play could probably not exist were it not for the dramatic tradition that has in the past given us The Glass Menagerie. The Little Foxes, Gyp??y, and the entire career of Edward Albee. And yet Marigolds is so sharp, so disturbing, and. yes, so slick that you can almost forget that it operates within same of the most overworked theatrical territory of our time.

This time around the heroine is Beatrice, the divorced/widowed mother of two high-school girls, one a sluttish convulsive, the other a painfully shy Plain Jane. Beatrice's family makes its home in a ground-floor apartment that looks like the setting of The Glass Menagerie thirty years and several natural disasters later. For money there is the rent mother collects from cruel families who dump their dying elderly in the flat's spare room.

Death? Life? You've heard some of this before? Fair enough. But there are some different things going on here-Beatrice is no ordinary mother. Certainly, on one hand, she is well within the idiom, badgering and torturing her offspring. pushing those around her to the brink of insanity as casually as another mother might pass the potatoes. But there is wit and laughter in her nastiness: Beatrice's rantings are too full-blooded to be taken all that seriously-and, when the chips are down, she is ready to support her daughters with awkward and unsentimental gestures of love. Happily Paul Zindel has written a play that is more about dignity than anything else, and in that lies Marigolds' very real distinction.

The people in this work do not bemoan their pathetic fates; they swallow the never-ending bits of bad news and go on, only to be rewarded sporadically with tiny, almost imperceptible, triumphs. The largest of these victories over rotten circumstances belongs to the shy daughter. Tillie, who successfully mounts a science fair project dealing with the effects of radiation on the growth of marigolds. It is as small an event as Laura's dance with the Gentleman Caller in the Williams prototype and just as affecting. Craftily enough Zindel goes on to turn this rinky-dink science fair exhibit into a metaphor that ties the whole work together in a neat and ambivalent fashion by the final curtain.

The playwright has pulled off some other nice tricks as well. There is the household's current live-in corpse, a perhaps 80-year-old woman, who hobbles in and out of the living room with the aid of her metal walking frame throughout the first act: she is a gray vegetable who says nothing, a fleshed-out phantom who serves as a grim reminder of the truly horrible facts of life that may be only a little further around the corner for this pathetic family. Zindel has also fashioned a dramatic structure that allows for no fat; the action moves at breakneck pace and the whole evening lasts only ninety minutes. Let me also point out that Zindel has thankfully failed to provide any sons for Beatrice to emasculate.

THE LOCAL production of Marigolds, on the basis of its final preview Monday night, more than lives up to the play and is usually the equal of the original off-Broadway version I saw a year ago. The New York director, Melvin Bernhardt, has repeated his staging chores here, and he has done nicely at adapting his work to the special demands of this new cast.

Bernhardt is, of course, more than fortunate to have Eileen Heckart working for him in the role of Beatrice. Miss Heckart is one of this country's finest and most often wasted actresses, and this is one of the few occasions I have seen her in a part worthy of her talents. Her gawky physique and nasal delivery are perfect means for presenting the character's uneasy balance of self-assurance and paranoia. When, in the second act, one of the daughters forces her mother to confront her own horrible past. Miss Heckart reveals Beatrice's long repressed wounds with a low-keyed bitterness that is devastating.

She is well assisted by Kendell March, who plays the convulsive, and by Mareia Jean Kurtz, the daughter who devotes most of her attention to caring for her "atomic flowers." (Miss Kurtz, however, has a tendency to play too many of her emotional cards too early; a little more passivity in the first act would pay larger dividends in the second.) There is also Ethel Woodruff in the potentially unrewarding part of the decrepit boarder. Miss Woodruff looks not unlike a pet rabbit who is murdered during the course of the drama; her pink eyes stare painfully ahead as if death were some shabby stranger waving in the faint distance, and I found her portrayal so credible that I often found it necessary to avert my eyes from the spectacle.

All this, of course. does not make for a particularly novel evening in the theatre-and undoubtedly some members of the audience will be put off by such anachronistic stagecraft during these chaotic time. True, true, true. But what the hell? I even caught myself crying on a couple of occasions Monday night, and I can be content for at least the rest of the week with theatre that allows me to take my tears and run.

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