When a group of tender seeds are exposed to toxic radiation, the ones receiving the smallest dose develop normally; those that are moderately exposed mutate into larger-than-life oddities, and the ones getting the heaviest dose wither and die. That's the finding of the science experiment that gives The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds its title.
It is also the heartbreakingly human lesson imparted by watching Paul Zindel's Pulitzer and Obie-winning play, produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company at Lucid Stage, under the direction of Chris Horton.
In an intricately run-down apartment converted from a former market (designed by Stacey Koloski), Beatrice (Christine Louise Marshall) is raising her two teenage daughters — shrinking-violet Tillie (Veronica Druchniak) and her older sister, the mercurial Ruth (Ruth Gray) — with an attitude that could easily be called radioactive. Self-absorbed, neglectful, and angry at the world, Beatrice is also mocking and belittling of her daughters — and, as written, even more darkly menacing when she's been drinking.
She blames her daughters for her life not turning out how she hoped: widowed, unemployed, and forced to take in elderly boarders on the brink of death for the pittance of cash it earns, Beatrice goes so far as to call her children "two stones around her neck."
In a play that is as allegorical as it is expository, it is the radioactive Beatrice herself who lives a self-professed "half-life," and condemns her daughters to the same. She cuts them in half with her mockery; she keeps the bright, science-fascinated Tillie home from school; she allows Ruth to discover one of the boarders dead — a trauma that gives Ruth recurring convulsions.
When Tillie is announced as a finalist in the school science fair, Ruth becomes her biggest cheerleader, berating her mother with excitement about the family's sole success. The revelation also ignites a spark of pride in Beatrice, brightening her countenance — until her past returns to haunt her, extinguishing the flame and sending the family into a deeper spiral as the play ends.
The contrast between Beatrice's moods, however, is not as sharp as it could be; Marshall's character is too upbeat at the beginning — and not in the "killing with kindness" sort of way that would end up making her creepier. She's also not dark enough in the middle and the end, leaving the menacing shifts largely in the audience's interpretation of the language, rather than in the emotional energy coming from the stage.
When Nanny (Muriel Kenderdine) appears, serving the play only as an early target for Beatrice's scorn and derision — the role has no lines, and only a couple of facial expressions: blankness, and a smile (twice) — Marshall's tone and face are too friendly to give weight to her biting threats and scorn. And a laugh line about murdering the family pet and causing Ruth more convulsions got some chuckles, but carried none of the sinister intimidation it should have dripped with.
Marshall has been darkly menacing to great effect many times on Portland stages; the choice to moderate her character's extremism has another casualty, too: flattening the performance of the only experienced actor on the stage for most of the play. Druchniak and Gray are high-school students, and talented ones: Druchniak's ability to utterly disappear on stage borders on Cheshire-like; Gray's flip-flopping moods seem very genuine teenager. While their characters have some irregularity written in, their inexperience accounts for some additional unevenness.
Mad Horse has chosen a play that is both strong and deep enough to make the production powerful, and the final scene, just after the dread moment arrives when the effects of the toxic radiation truly begin to blossom, is both poignant and pitiful — leaving the audience to ponder, after the blackout, what in fact remains of these half-lives.
THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS | by Paul Zindel | directed by Chris Horton | produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company | at Lucid Stage, in Portland | through April 1 | 207.899.3993