Shockingly well-acted play performed at Okoboji theaterOKOBOJI, Iowa — “It was good, it was very good — but it was just a little different and intense,” one theater patron mused aloud while departing the Tuesday evening performance of Paul Zindel’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds” at Okoboji Summer Theatre (OST).
By: Jane Turpin Moore, Worthington Daily Globe
OKOBOJI, Iowa — “It was good, it was very good — but it was just a little different and intense,” one theater patron mused aloud while departing the Tuesday evening performance of Paul Zindel’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds” at Okoboji Summer Theatre (OST).
And while it would be generous to say the theater was half full on opening night, perhaps due to the show being a drama rather than a fluffy farce or lilting musical, those in attendance were appreciative of the fine acting on display, as well as seeming intelligently receptive to the theme of hope and persistence in the face of debilitating family dysfunction.
Zindel, who died in 2003 in his home state of New York at the age of 66, wrote the semi-autobiographical “Gamma Rays” in 1964, but he received most of the kudos for it when it moved to off-Broadway performances in 1970. Among his accolades for the gritty family drama were the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for drama, the 1970 New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the 1970 Obie Award.
Taking its title from the name for heroine Matilda “Tillie” Hunsdorfer’s creative science fair project, the play centers on Tillie’s struggle to deal with a wretched home life. Her mother, Beatrice, is among the most unsympathetic, and yet pathetic, characters this reviewer has ever seen on stage. A bitter, mentally unbalanced and alcoholic woman left to raise two daughters on her own, Beatrice takes out her anger on Tillie and older daughter Ruth, who is likely somewhat developmentally disabled and possibly epileptic.
Added to the mix is the vulnerable “Nanny,” an aged black woman whose career-minded daughter misguidedly pays Beatrice $50 a week to rent her a room and care for her. Sadly, the sort of “care” Beatrice provides Nanny consists of constantly hurled insults (she frequently refers to her as “the $50-a-week corpse” and “that dried prune”) and the barest minimum of effort. In fact, watching young actress Elaina O’Neal “care” for Nanny provided some of the show’s most horrifying and intense moments.
A native of Springfield, Mo., and a Stephens College student, O’Neal is definitely this show’s shining light, despite her depiction of the most despicable and narcissistic Beatrice. O’Neal is utterly convincing as the unstable, middle-aged Beatrice. Tossing off insightful lines such as, “Everything I thought I was going to be has exploded,” and “Nobody’s too busy for things they want to do,” she relentlessly screams at her daughters and casually (and repeatedly) threatens to kill their pet rabbit, even while she chain smokes and drinks herself to near oblivion.
The role of Beatrice won Joanne Woodward the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973, and it’s easy to see how a skillful actor can make the part a real head-turner. O’Neal does just that, and is scarily mean, loud and abusive as the world-weary Beatrice.
As Tillie, Stephens College student Katie McKellar wins our sympathies and inward cheers. Appearing on stage first with her beloved rabbit, Peter, cradled in her arms, McKellar allows the audience to feel her helplessness on the miserable home front even as she begins to soar at school—especially in science—thanks to her native intelligence and the caring guidance of her teacher, Mr. Goodman.
Sascha Streckel is satisfying as sister Ruth, who is both a source of occasional comfort and frequent frustration to Tillie. Sascha demonstrates Ruth’s own relative mental—and physical—instability, and her role is pivotal to the plot development in that it is her insult to Beatrice (“Betty Loon”) that leads the latter to her most extreme actions in the play.
Equally as good is Miriam Gossett in the smaller role of Nanny. Gossett makes it easy for the audience to believe she is a compromised 80-year-old, and her movements and facial expressions communicate fully her state of being—even though her part has no words.
Beth Leonard, OST’s longtime artistic director and the Stephens College dean of the school of performing arts, does a masterful job of directing her young thespians in this production, and OST veteran Michael Burke provides subtle though effective sound.
Still, it is the student crew leaders who steal the show. Brandon PT Davis designed a set that is evocative and period-perfect as the run-down home of the Hunsdorfer family. With old newspapers covering windows, cracked walls, stacks of yellowing newspapers, piles of clothes, unidentified items of various kinds randomly lining the stairs, mismatched, tattered curtains hung at doorways and a filthy refrigerator topped with an oatmeal canister and other kitchen paraphernalia, this set would delight the “Hoarders” show producers.
Also satisfying are student costume designer Cami Huebert’s wardrobe choices. Costume highlights include the gloriously awful dress Beatrice appears in to attend Tillie’s science fair presentation, the sad-sack housedress/apron/head-wrap combination worn by Nanny and the plaid schoolgirl dress worn by Tillie in the last few scenes.
“Gamma Rays” is not a light, uplifting summer show, but it is a thought-provoking and well performed Pulitzer Prize winner that is worth attending if you’re not afraid of seeing some of what my evening companion says is all too true-to-life in the child protection and social services work he performs professionally.
“Gamma Rays” continues at OST through Sunday. Next week’s “Company,” a Stephen Sondheim musical, will provide a complete change of pace.