(Charles Kruger)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” by Paul Zindel, produced by Custom Made Theatre Co. Director: Katja Rivera. Stage Manager: Ace Annese. Costume Designer: Scarlett Kellum. Lighting Designer: Dena Burd. Sound Designer: Maxx Kurzunski. Properties Designer: Derrick Hines.

Beatrice: Michelle Jasso. Tillie: Julia Belanoff. Ruth: Alona Bach. Nanny: AJ Davenport. Janice: Michele Ang.

Paul Zindel‘s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon-Marigolds” won a Pulitzer Prize when it premiered in 1971. Forty years later, it is often revived and continues to hold its place as a mid-20th century American classic. A family drama of madness and alcoholism, it has often (and appropriately) been compared to the works of Eugene O’Neil and Tennessee Williams. While not achieving the standing of those works, it is a fine play and deserves its good reputation.

Alcoholic mother Beatrice is a flat-out monster. She keeps her teenaged daughter, Tillie, at home on schooldays to clean house. She bribes her other daughter, Ruth, with cigarettes in exchange for backrubs. She loudly and flamboyantly abuses her tenant, the elderly Nanny, who is both crippled and mute and unable to defend herself, although fully alert. Mom periodically threatens to kill the family pet, a rabbit that Tillie brought home from school as a gift from a sympathetic teacher. Ruth is a stereotypical bad girl type in heavy lipstick and tight sweaters who has a history of mental breakdowns. Tillie is a hunched over science geek, utterly cowed by the craziness that surrounds her.

The title refers to Tillie’s science fair experiment. She is raising man-in-the-moon marigolds which have been exposed to radiation. Some will die, some will be pitifully damaged, but some will mutate into beautiful variations. All this, of course, is a metaphor for the effects of the family drama on poor Tillie who, with her love for science, manages to remain hopeful and even shows promise of maturing into a rare and wonderful adult.

From the odd-sounding title to the over-the-top behaviors, this play is a prime example of the genre of black comedy. Properly performed, it should draw howls of laughter and yet periodically punch the audience right in the gut with the underlying truths revealed by the extreme behavior.

In Custom Made’s production, the play has, inexplicably, been treated as straight forward melodrama. Not only are the laughs missed, they seem to be intentionally avoided. The monstrous behavior is played unrelentingly with absolute seriousness and realism. It is a fatal mistake.  Uninvited to laugh, the audience is left to respond in horror to this nightmare and it is an uncomfortable experience.

It is surely not entirely the fault of a capable cast. Each of the performers has some excellent moments, especially Julia Belanoff as Tillie, who is quite moving in her opening and closing monologues. The always outstanding AJ Davenport does a bangup job with the mute and crippled Nanny, whose eyes reveal that she understands exactly what is going on.

Director Katja Rivera, I’m afraid, has misunderstood the play and treated it as a serious melodrama instead of a black comedy. The talent and hard work invested by the company deserved better.

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