Anyone with a taste for dark, well-acted theater should check out director Kyle Hatley’s production of Paul Zindel’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” at the Living Room.
This show opens Kansas City Actors Theatre’s 2014-15 season and offers one of its members, Melinda McCrary, an opportunity to immerse herself in a dysfunctional character who is by turns sympathetic, self-pitying and monstrous. Two hours with an abusive narcissist might have been unbearable if a lesser actress had played the role. McCrary, as it turns out, is at her best and delivers an emotionally raw, well-observed performance that’s as thoughtful as it is immediate.
Zindel’s play, which claimed the Pulitzer Prize in 1971, depicts a troubled household occupied by Beatrice (McCrary), a memory-ravaged single mother; her quiet but intellectually curious younger daughter, Tillie (Zoe London); and the older daughter, Ruth (Daria LeGrand), a provocateur with a history of mental illness and, apparently, epilepsy. There’s also a boarder, the elderly Nanny (Joicie Appell), who never speaks but becomes an intriguing presence.
Tillie’s curiosity about the universe and the nature of atoms lends the play a degree of optimism to counter the domestic bleakness on view. Zindel uses Tillie’s hunger for knowledge about the source of life in a way that brings to mind Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” He presents a detailed depiction of daily life, with all of its immediate concerns, against the vastness of a limitless universe.
The message is that we are all, in the end, merely a collection of atoms. What we do with our time on Earth is what matters.
Tillie, a socially awkward misfit, is sometimes the brunt of cruel jokes by her schoolmates, but when she chooses to enter the school’s science fair, that begins to change. Her project is to cultivate marigolds from seeds that have been exposed to varying degrees of radiation. The resulting mutations can be beautiful or stunted, depending on the level of radiation.
Ruth initially is a source of sharp-tongued put-downs as Tillie plows ahead with her project. But when Tillie makes it to the final competition of the science fair, Ruth becomes the proud older sister.
Beatrice, meanwhile, is so tormented and self-obsessed that she feels pride for Tillie for only a fleeting moment. Most of the time she feels only jealousy and resentment, not just of the kids, but for virtually everyone she knows. This is heart-breaking stuff.
In contrast to McCrary’s artfully corrosive performance, London plays Tillie as a soft-spoken cipher who internalizes her emotions in almost every situation. London, with her big eyes and delicate physical presence, becomes a haunting figure by the time we last glimpse her ascending the staircase of her home. What her fate will ultimately be remains an open question.
LeGrand, always a physical performer with energy to spare, is both comic in her wicked put-downs and very sad as a girl who can’t escape her own history or messed-up family. At times LeGrand’s physical performance is so aggressive that she threatens to throw the show off balance.
Appell is wonderful to watch in her appearances as the mute Nanny. Her performance is a beautiful example of doing a lot by doing nothing.
Hatley has always been good with actors, but directing in one of the Living Room’s more awkward downstairs performance areas, he bumps up against simple physical limitations. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never seen a more technically polished production at the Living Room.
Matt Mott’s scenic design is a wonderfully disheveled depiction of a house that looks to be about two steps short of abandonment. Jeff Cady’s lighting is particularly effective, and his projections, ranging from color renderings of the solar system to chalk drawings of Tillie’s science project, are amazing.
Joseph Concha’s sound design makes a big contribution, and Eryn Bates’ music is understated and spare.
Hatley makes a bold choice in a scene in which the electricity has gone out and Beatrice and Ruth carry on a conversation illuminated only by a flashlight. You have to respect the idea, but the visual murkiness robs the viewers of the actors’ facial expressions and limits a crucial scene’s impact. It might have been effective viewed from the front row. From farther back, not so much.
Quibbles aside, this an impressive way to start Kansas City’s fall theater season. This play gets under your skin. For anyone who has brushed up against — or escaped from — a dysfunctional family, the events onstage are likely to feel disturbingly familiar.
The Kansas City Actors Theatre’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” continues through Aug. 31 at the Living Room, 1818 McGee St. Go to KCActors.org for more information.