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"I GOT STUCK with one daughter with half a mind; another one who's half a test tube; half a husband--a house half full of rabbit crap--and half a corpse! That's what I call a half-life, Matilda! Me and cobalt-60." In sarcasm and desperation, Beatrice, the heroine of Paul Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, screams at her indrawn daughter. At first glance, I wanted to add that Ron Melrose's production at the Loeb Ex is, sequentially, half a show. But that's too easy, too pat. This production has too much in it that borders on superb to pan it, and yet its result is oddly unsatisfying.
Zindel's written a strong script that fights any attempt to butcher it. His man-in-the-moon marigolds are the subject of an award-winning science project built by Tillie, Beatrice's half-test tube. In the life that Beatrice leads in an old vegetable store with her daughters, the other an epileptic, and a senile, decayed nanny, the marigolds, for the first time, make her proud. Zindel skillfully draws a portrait of Beatrice's shattered life, of epileptic Ruth's rebellion and Tillie's strength in her world of scientific experiments--and the tightrope walk of their dependence on each other. But a script is only a skeleton, it is up to the actors to give it flesh and blood. These three women come close to doing that, but they can't quite complete the forms.
Christina Monet's Ruth is the boniest of the three. She relies heavily on screeching to get across her tight, erratic personality, and ends up overacting. In contrast, Anne Strassner as Tillie disastrously underplays her role. Tillie is the quiet, strong independent force who, in the end, holds the burden of keeping the family together. Strassner is quiet and shy, and outwardly the right combination of fear and genius. But she does not give off the strength or the sense of vocation that Tillie has and that, ultimately, saves her.
SUSAN EHRLICH'S Beatrice is the paradox that makes it so hard for me to pass judgement on this production. In one way, she is outstanding, in another, she is terrible. She creates a Beatrice who is a wonderfully consistent, three dimensional person--an all too rare accomplishment for an amateur. But, tragically, her Beatrice is not the person Zindel wrote, and this throws the production off balance. She is too low-key, too gently humorous. She doesn't bite or sting, and doesn't build up the bitterness that brings her to cry at the end of the play, "I hate the World!"
And, since Beatrice has not built up to this, when Tillie a moment later says: "What a beautiful world," there is no contrast. There is no contrast between sarcasm and tenderness when Beatrice comforts a sobbing Ruth. We lose the conflicts and the inter-relations between very different personalities that are the purpose of this show.
Jane Musk's set looks gloriously like a long neglected junk shop, but the sound man does have to learn to deep his thoughts to himself when the wrong tape gets played. Special recognition must go to the outstanding rabbit, who carries off his role with great elan, even when he almost falls off a table.
There was a moment of dead silence at the end of the show, before the audience applauded. A mere half-show doesn't do that to people. But just the words of the author cannot give soul to a play, soul comes from the people. In this case, the people were lacking.
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