Friday, October 10, 2003

Radiation sickness: Living a half-life

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Marie Curie was among the first to learn that exposure to high doses of radiation can stunt organisms’ growth and cause premature death. In The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, a budding female scientist takes a different route to the same lesson.

Tillie Hunsdorfer (Chelsea Cook) is a bright student whose mother, Beatrice (played by Annette L. Bourque), is jealous of her success. While she doesn’t actually hit her daughter, Beatrice is emotionally abusive and often prevents Tillie from even going to school, instead making her do endless chores around the house. Tillie’s sister Ruth (Andrea Wickham) is allowed to go to school, but seems not to make much of the opportunity.

It becomes clear, though, that Beatrice sees herself in her smart non-conformist daughter, and fears for Tillie’s future. When Beatrice learns the students laughed at Tillie during a science assembly, she turns on her. "They laugh at you, they’re laughing at me," she says, remembering the scorn she endured in her school days, just for being different. That radiation has seared Beatrice, and she in turn irradiates Tillie and Ruth.

Beatrice confesses her feelings in a conversation with Tillie about a science project. Tillie is planting marigold seeds that have been exposed to cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope with the relatively short half-life of 5.3 years.

Beatrice, she tells her daughter, knows all about half-lives. She is "the original half life," she says, and launches into a brief soliloquy offering a view into another world, the inner corridors of "the other half"’s lives: Beatrice has one daughter — the panic-suffering Ruth — with "half a mind," the other — science-brained Tillie — "half a test tube," her house is half full of the droppings of the family’s pet rabbit, and she shares a living space with half a corpse, the elderly Nanny (Ellen Thomas), whom Beatrice cares for to earn extra money.

It is a speech that could be both heartbreaking and pathetic. Bourque, however, only gets to the pathetic part of Beatrice’s character. The play is written to be slow-moving, and Bourque’s Beatrice properly sucks the life out of each scene in which she appears. But even in moments of redemption and openness, Bourque draws only pity from the audience.

Cook’s Tillie is a far more sympathetic character, playing her middle-woman role strongly, and showing the promise of youthful enthusiasm in scenes without Beatrice. When faced with Beatrice, Cook immediately adopts deferential tone and bearing, though keeping sparks alive under the bushel.

Ruth is more stereotypical, and is played well by Wickham, a newcomer to USM’s main stage. First a flighty teenage girl, she morphs into a younger version of her mother, but one more bitter and with less hope.

The characters are complicated and conflicted. It is their depth that earned this play both a Pulitzer and an Obie. Beatrice’s grudging acceptance of duty, dashing her own dreams, is briefly inspiring, when she is made to understand that Tillie’s finalist status in the school science fair is not a chance for people to mock Beatrice but to celebrate Tillie.

In the second act, the effects of the radiation become clear. As Tillie’s marigold experiment showed, seeds with a little radiation were normal; moderate radiation resulted in mutants. Seeds that endured large amounts of radiation were stunted or killed.

Beatrice, boosted by pride in Tillie’s accomplishments at the science fair, starts to heal and face her fears. But her radiation has ruined Ruth, who turns on her mother and destroys what remains of the life in Beatrice’s soul, triggering a rapid decay of spirit and turning Beatrice into a shell of her former self.

While the show is billed as a redemptive story, there is little hope left at the play’s end. Despite Tillie’s claim that "some of the mutations will be good ones," the spectre of radiation sickness lingers in the theater after the lights go up.

The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds
Written by Paul Zindel. Directed by Minor Rootes. With Annette L. Bourque, Chelsea Cook, and Andrea Wickham. At University of Southern Maine, Russell Hall, through Oct. 12. Call (207) 780-5151.


The Public Theatre in Lewiston recently received two grants: $10,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to support educational outreach programming, including ticket-price subsidies for students and local community organizations, and student internships at the theater; and a $5000 unrestricted grant from the Shubert Foundation, the charity arm of a company owning 17 Broadway theaters, recognizing general excellence at the Public Theatre.

• Need a great Halloween costume? Check out the Maine State Music Theatre’s costume shop sale October 11, from 8 a.m. to noon, at MSMT’s new building, 22 Elm Street, in Brunswick, across from Hannaford. Most items will sell for $5, and all proceeds benefit the theater. Local theaters can get first dibs by calling Crystle Martin at (207) 725-8760 x15.

• A group of 10 Boothbay Harbor residents has purchased the town’s Opera House and plans to restore it. The 20,000-square-foot building will house gallery space, dance studios, a banquet hall, reception areas, and a 350-seat main theater. The first event, a concert by Jackson Browne, will be November 3. To learn more, visit