“Part of me was formed from a tongue of fire that screamed through the heavens until there was our sun,” muses Tillie dreamily. Her appreciation for the beauty of science won’t go unchallenged by her miserable excuse for a mother. “I hate the world,” pronounces Beatrice bitterly, and woe to anyone who would hope for anything good to come out of it.
Splinter Group kicks off its sophomore season with “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds”, a powerhouse of a play awarded the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and currently receiving an affecting staging at the Marian Center for Nonprofits.
Dysfunctional families have been a prime source of drama going back at least as far as Ancient Greek works such as Oedipus Rex, and “Marigolds” continues that lauded tradition. The story unfolds in the shabby home of Beatrice Hunsdorfer, the single mother of Tillie, an awkward geek hoping to win the school science fair with her experiment on marigold seeds exposed to radioactivity, and Ruth, the socially adjusted older sister who suffered a nervous breakdown. Beatrice is a cruel and callous woman who pathologically belittles everyone around her, especially her two daughters. Despite Beatrice’s toxicity, these two young women struggle, as all life must, to bloom into maturity.
Beatrice, a.k.a. “Betty the Loon”, is one of the great gorgons of the stage, those daughters of Medea whose ranks include Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Violet from August: Osage County, and Mag from The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Beatrice, however, is the most insidious of her ilk because her misdeeds present a sociological problem. Whichever way one categorizes her, whether as the by-product of the welfare state, insufficient mental healthcare services, the erosion of traditional family values, or inadequate family planning, all can agree that in thwarting the ambitions of her children she violates the most cherished axiom of American culture, the importance of rewarding achievement. The threat she poses to the very fabric of society makes her a most compelling monster.
Niffer Clarke, whose pale blue eyes stun from beneath the stage lights, renders the humanity in the monster by drawing out the paradoxical dimensions in her personality. Beatrice is at times cynical and hopeful, abusive and doting, slovenly and entrepreneurial, and Ms. Clarke inhabits every facet of this strange, fascinating character to chilling effect.
Critical to the success of this production is Megan Kaminsky as an effervescent Ruth, energizing a potentially depressing play in which the spark of optimism is buried beneath despair. Kat Wodtke’s Tillie personifies that fragile spark, constantly on the verge of lighting up or blowing out. The reliably engaging Marilyn White brings immediacy to the conflict in the non-speaking role of Nanny, an invalid border at the Hunsdorfer household, as a living reminder of the inevitable march of time. Equally impressive as the acting are the costumes and set design that transport the audience back to the less-vigilant 1970’s.
Some of the best theatre in town is showing for the low, low price of $15 a seat. Need I say more?
Splinter Group’s production of “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” runs from October 24 through November 9 at the Marian Center for Nonprofits in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. More information and tickets are available here.