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A little flower and a lot of science inspire Tillie Hunsdorfer (Abby Depuy) to her better angels. Photos by Daren Scott.

In adulthood, Janice Vickery probably became, like, a serial killer or something.

Anybody who’d boil a cat unchecked and mount the skeleton as a high-school science project (especially after lying about how she came by the animal) is headed for a few ugly rows with the legal system, whose ultimate palliative ensures its adversaries never get out alive.

Late playwright Paul Zindel, a onetime high school chem teacher himself, is hoping you’ll find Janice’s geeky competitor Tillie Hunsdorfer more to your liking. That’s one of the reasons he went ahead and wrote The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, current Cygnet Theatre Company entry and one of the modern era’s better situational dramas.

The story won the Pulitzer drama prize in 1971 and became a Paul Newman film the following year — there’s some really rich subtext here, featuring fictional accounts of Zindel’s troubled past and the catharses that betray his hope.

[Beatrice is] the play’s most persistent flaw, and by her nature, she’s also the largest.

By all means, see this excellent portrayal of a failed matriarch and the daughterly resilience beyond her reach.

Just please be advised that for all the passion behind her role, Tillie’s mom is actually quite thinly drawn, a crucial drawback in the story’s trajectory. She’s the play’s persistent flaw, and by her nature, she’s also the largest.

“Everything I thought I would be has exploded,” laments widow Beatrice Hunsdorfer, mother of two teen girls, a graduate of their Brooklyn high school and a caregiver to a disabled boarder. The latter is the least of her worries as her pickled baritone and acid tongue find their marks — but while unstable epileptic daughter Ruth often caves to Bea’s bitterness, Tillie is quietly defiant, throwing herself into science as a means of self-discovery.

Her project this year involves the upshot from cobalt-60 radiation on members of the sunflower family — the flora emerge deformed but quite hardy, leaving Tillie to conclude that everyone and everything, at least in the abstract, possesses great value.

Beatrice, of course, will have none of it, perceiving Tillie’s potential success as a threat to the life of love and accomplishment she’d envisioned with her late husband.

Beatrice Hunsdorfer (DeAnna Driscoll, left) has words of wisdom (or else) for daughter Ruth amid their home’s creeping decay.

Beatrice’s heinous attitude culminates in ghastly harm to Ruth, even as it’s revealed that the high school remembers Betty the Loon in all her excesses and caprice. As regret and anger proceed to consume Beatrice, Tillie emerges none the worse for wear, her winning project the latest in a series of hopeful epiphanies and challenges.

“Atom. Atom,” she exults. “What a beautiful word!”

Still, that big piece of the puzzle nags as Beatrice’s raison d’etre unfolds — precisely because she’s met her denouement before the play begins. The petty phone flirtations with Mr. Goodman, Tillie’s mentor and principal; the flinty chastisement of helpless old boarder Nanny; her haste in conceiving the tea shop she says she’d like to run; her sentimentality over Mr. Frank, her late, unseen vegetable vendor father, who raised her; her fear that she has nothing left in or for the world: While Zindel weaves a good tale about his leading lady, he neglects to supply the evidence behind her despond.

Her final act of grass-roots insanity, for example, is truly despicable, yet nothing we’ve directly witnessed so far would lead us to reasonably anticipate it, except perhaps in a narrative.

Alas, the character simply doesn’t track well on paper for someone with so supposedly desperate a worldview.

[The girls are] positively excellent at registering their fear of Beatrice and channeling it for their own purposes.

Even so, the ensemble culture is alive and very, very well here. DeAnna Driscoll’s Beatrice is every whit the frumpy, dispossessed daughter and mother, old before her time and clueless as to the responsibility she bears in decelerating the clock.

And watch Rachel Esther Tate as Ruth and 14-year-old Abby Depuy as Tillie — they’re positively excellent at registering their fear of Beatrice and channeling it for their own purposes.

Carm Greco’s Nanny is silent throughout, but her bearing amid Beatrice’s contempt speaks volumes. Director Rob Lutfy, assisted by Kristen Fogle, has tapped into something special with Michelle Marie Trester’s Janice — poor girl is exactly the comedy relief this piece needs.

(With a straight face, Janice declares her next project may involve a dog. Hee!)

[Rachel Hengst’s] cat skeleton is an absolutely perfect depiction of the animal’s excruciating suffering. . .

Charles Murdock Lucas’ set depicts Mr. Frank’s decrepit vegetable warehouse, presumably willed to Beatrice. It invites myriad character insights amid Conor Mulligan’s lights, which fade and reappear like so many gamma rays.

Shelly Williams’ costumes are noteworthy for their color schemes, while Kevin Anthenill’s sound is dutiful and clean. And a shout-out goes to prop designer Rachel Hengst — her cat skeleton is an absolutely perfect depiction of the animal’s excruciating suffering at Janice’s hands.

There’s something Tennessee Williams about this show; the great American playwright reflected the many sorrows in his own family life, and Zindel (whose cop dad abandoned his kids) does the same here, with comparable success.

This is a very good piece in the hands of some fine and attuned talent — a little more authorial attention to Beatrice, and it would have been a great one.

Corollary: If I ruled the universe — and I do, you know — the live idiots who carry live cell phones into live theaters (and who proceed to engage in audible live conversations with their callers) would be fed to their live accusers once the devices ring, which they inevitably will.

Fortunately for him, ‘Marigolds’ playwright Paul Zindel died before cell phones were in worldwide use. (Public domain image)

By the same token, the Chia Pets who taunted an offender during an incident at the Sept. 2 opening are equally guilty. They, too, blithely disrespected the efforts of the most vulnerable party, namely Driscoll. She had the biggest fish to fry amid her ardent attempts at maintaining character through the distraction. Neither Cell Phone Boy nor his hecklers did her any favors.

Repeat after me until it really, really hurts: Cell phones belong in glove compartments or worse during performances; no ifs, ands or buts. Absolutely none. Don’t care who you are. Don’t care what you do.

Let’s assume both sides learned as much on opening night, although at my age I don’t hold out a lot of hope.

This review is based on the opening-night performance of Sept. 2. The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds runs through Sept. 24 at Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in, oddly enough, Old Town. 619-337-1525, cygnettheatre.com.

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Cygnet Theatre
Work Old Town Theatre 4040 Twiggs St. San Diego CA 92110 Work Phone: (619) 337-1525 Website: Cygnet Theatre website
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Martin Jones Westlin

Martin Jones Westlin

Martin Jones Westlin, principal at editorial consultancy Words Are Not Enough and La Jolla Village News editor emeritus, has been a theater critic and editor/writer for 25 of his 47 years... More...

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