By Patsy Isenberg
Events in the lives of a dysfunctional family with mental health and medical problems and who are doomed financially are portrayed compellingly at The Flint Repertory Theatre (The Rep) in the play, “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.”
The production continues through Sunday at the Elgood Theatre, 1220 E. Kearsley St. in the Flint Cultural Center.
“Gamma Rays” was written by Paul Zindel in 1964 and earned him the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1971.
Zindel, who died in 2003, said in biographical materials that he drew from his own experience growing up in a challenging family. He began writing plays in 1951 during a long hospitalization for tuberculosis at the age of 15. After high school he attended Wagner College in Staten Island, and obtained two degrees in chemistry. For a while he taught and did technical writing but continued to write plays.
The Rep’s production is intense, appropriate to its searing themes. The five characters are all women, portrayed with absorbing insight by five Michigan actors. Several have UM – Flint connections either as students or teachers and have been in productions at The Rep before.
The main character is Beatrice Hunsdorfer, mother to two daughters, played by Janet Haley. An elderly boarder, Nanny, is played by Madelyn Porter, who according to encyclopedia.com “…is nothing more than a walking corpse.”
The teenage daughters, Ruth and younger Tillie, played respectively by Claire Jolliffe and Eva Katherine Pietras, have processed their dysfunctional upbringing in very different ways.
Ruth is epileptic, an infirmity ostensibly caused by stress, and is overly concerned about what people think of her.
Tillie is very intelligent, unconcerned about what people think, and throughout the play is working on her science fair project called, “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the Moon Marigolds.”
The fifth character is Janice Vickery, Tillie’s arch rival to win top prize at the science fair. She is played by Meredith Deighton.
Director Kathryn Walsh returned from Chicago for this production. She also directed “The Wolves” at The Rep last season and “Balloonacy” for Flint Youth Theatre before that. Her many other directing credits are too numerous to list. She has served in many roles in theatre production, mostly in Chicago.
About the main character, Beatrice, Walsh writes in the director’s notes for the program that “There’s no part of this home that isn’t steeped in her unhappiness. It radiates through and into everything — including her two daughters, Ruth and Tillie.” It could be argued that the science experiment Tillie is working on is symbolic of the “radiation” heaped on the girls by their mother.
In this play Janet Haley is fabulous in portraying both a mother and a madwoman. Haley played a not dissimilar role in last season’s “The Glass Menagerie.” Both are described as “memory plays” where the plot relies on the memory of its characters.
Like Walsh, Haley has accumulated numerous theater credits; her biography in the program states she “has played over 35 roles that run the spectrum of maids, mothers, madwomen and magicians.” Many of her credits include roles in Shakespeare plays. Haley is an artistic associate with Michigan Shakespeare Festival and also associate professor of theatre and Theatre Department chair at UM-Flint.
All of the other actresses in “The Effect of Gamma Rays…” inhabit their characters seamlessly as well.
Jolliffe, who was in “The Wolves” last season, recently graduated from The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. Back in Michigan, she is working around the state including The Michigan Shakespeare Festival. Jolliffe’s role challenges her physically during a seizure Ruth has near the end of the play and she performs it quite convincingly.
Ava Katharine Pietras is a “third year scholarship student at UM-Flint and was recently cast in “My children! My Africa!” directed by Haley at the UM-Flint. Several times throughout the play Pietras as Tillie speaks to the audience concerning her feelings about her experiment which crosses over to how she also sees life in general. But she conveys all of this joyfully, indicating that she, unlike her mother, has optimism.
Madelyn Porter as Nanny, the boarder, has no lines in the play but the part is extremely challenging nonetheless. Porter received the 2019 Kresge Arts in Detroit-Literary Arts Award and often performs historical reenactments and storyliving at the Detroit Historical Museum, The Henry Ford/Greenfield Village and Troy Historical Village.
The role of Tillie’s rival, Janice, was played by Meredith Deighton who was also in last season’s “The Wolves” and “The Glass Menagerie.” Deighton appears only in the second act but her eerily comical but much-welcome monologue is unforgettable.
Another important quality to this play is the set design by Lauren Nigri. As encyclopedia.com asserts, “Images of death and decay are prominent in the play.” Nigri conveys that quality to the audience masterfully through her artful choices of props and creating an uncomfortable disorderliness.
The production staff of “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” all contributed to the success of this play. These include Katherine Nelson (costume designer), Kendra Babcock (costume shop manager, stitcher), Stephanie Baugher (scenic charge artist), Lisa Bilaski (props designer), Taylor Boes (stage manager), Jesse Glenn (carpenter), Jen Fok (lighting designer), Nick Larosa (lighting assistant, light board operator), Madeline Lobdell (lighting assistant, production assistant), Gene Oliver (technical director), Andrea Orpinel (head of wardrobe), Dave Thompson (master electrician), and Aaron Weeks (sound technician, sound board operator).
Theatre companies like The Rep are fortunate to have experienced professionals like these available here in Flint. All of those named have prior experience in theatre, often on previous Flint Repertory Theatre productions, Whiting, Flint Youth Theatre and Flint Community Players. Many have studied at UM-Flint.
“The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” runs through this weekend, through Sept.22. Performances are 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday and 8 p.m. evening performances Friday and Saturday in the Elgood Theatre. Visit flintrep.org or call 810-237-7333 for ticket information.
Upcoming at The Rep is “The Chairs,” an absurdest comedy. Its only two characters will be played by Kay and Mike Kelly. It’s about two older people having a conversation in a house on an island. Scheduled Nov. 1-10.
EVM Staff Writer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.