The title of this play is theater’s equivalent of a Three Mile Island meltdown: “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.” It’s also the only bad thing about the play, which Paul Zindel wrote when he was still teaching high school chemistry, never expecting what would happen next: after its staging in Houston in 1964, it opened on Broadway in 1970 to glowing reviews, and won him the Pulitzer Prize the following year.
It opened at Palm Coast’s City Repertory Theatre Friday, running for six performances this weekend and the next to close out what has been a dazzling first season for the Repertory Theatre and its founders, John Sbordone and Diane Ellertsen.
From “The Laramie Project” to the “Jacques Brel” revue to “Art” and several smaller-scale productions in between, that small theater has been a gift to the local cultural scene disproportionate to its size. It seats just 50 or 60 each performance, at Hollingsworth Gallery at City Market Place, with no marquee or any other visual presence to make its mark. It’s been virtually all word of mouth or its Facebook equivalent, leaving out an unfortunate mass of theater lovers who still think the Flagler Playhouse is all there is.
Any of this season’s plays at the Repertory would have been a fine introduction to a new audience. “Marigolds” should be no different: like its predecessors, it combines hard-edged comedy—in this case, cruel comedy—with psychological drama designed to make you squirm through your laughter a little.
“Marigolds”’ premise is simple and should be instantly recognizable to most people familiar with family’s nuclear fissions: Beatrice, the overbearing, suffocating, trampy single mother; Tillie and Ruth, the two teen-age daughters, each with deceptive quirks that hide a world of hurt and desire; and Nanny, “utterly wrinkled and dried, perhaps a century old,” a mute invalid with that mixture of dementia and decay that give assisted living facilities their stench of death. Like Ralph Kramden of the “Honeymooners,” Beatrice is rich in schemes, bankrupt of good sense or commitment. She could finish neither a real estate course nor beauty school. She has no job. Nanny is her meal ticker. She’s not family. She’s Beatrice’s boarder, so the invalid’s family doesn’t have to take care of her, though Beatrice isn’t quite the caring kind: “You know if someone told me when I was young that I’d end up feeding honey to a zombie, I’d tell them they were crazy.”
Of course, she’s the crazy one, forcing truancy on her daughters as a means of better controlling them, of better preventing them from outshining what glimmers she still imagines about herself. “Before I knew what happened,” she tells Tillie, “I lost my dancing legs and got varicose legs. Beautiful varicose legs. Do you know, everything I ever thought I’d be has exploded!” Tillie meanwhile is reciting gibberish (to most ears) about the half-life of this and that, part of her learning about the experiment of the title: she is growing marigold seeds that have been exposed to radiation, with generally frightening results, and some exceptions. Her mother thinks she’s nuts. But she thinks everybody’s nuts: “If you want to know what a half-life is, just ask me. You’re looking at the original half-life! I got stuck with one daughter with half a mind; another one who’s half a test tube; half a husband—a house half full of rabbit crap—and half a corpse!” Beatrice fuels up on self-pity.
It doesn’t take a four-year degree in deconstruction to figure out that the marigolds are a metaphor for Tillie’s family, or that for all the lethal radiation surrounding them, each one of these characters, including Beatrice, has a humanity struggling to make an appearance. It may be too late for Beatrice. The radiation may be too fatal for the young daughters. (There’s also a rabbit thrown in there for added metaphorical effect, though that’s one of the more heavy-handed, less necessary bits in the play, a device designed to give Ruth a little more depth than she possesses).
Tillie, as it turns out, is not quite the half-nut her mother makes her out to be, but quite possibly a half genius whose gamma-ray marigolds win her a spot in a science competition. It’s an unexpected success in a family that ahs known none, or at least been prevented from recognizing any by Beatrice’s disdains. It’s a chance to rally, to be proud, to be a family again. Zindel, the playwright, doesn’t let the audience off that easy.
He based the story on his own experience, growing up in Staten Island. “Our home was a house of fear,” he was quoted as saying (he died of cancer in 2003: those gamma rays again). ‘”Mother never trusted anybody, and ours wasn’t the kind of house someone could get into by knocking on the front door. A knock at the door would send mother, sister and me running to a window to peek out.” His mother, abandoned by a husband-cop, forced him to see the world the way she did, forcing him, too, to retreat into his own world and make one up.
Sbordone’s production has as much to do with the inherent power of the Zindel’s play as with the actors he’s chosen for the parts. Ruth and Tillie are played by near-veterans of his stage, at the Repertory Theatre and back at the Flagler Playhouse, when he used to direct there: Leana Gardella and Agata Sokolska, students at Flagler Palm Coast High School, close friends and the recent leads in FPC’s “The Miracle Worker.” And for Beatrice, Sbordone got Julia Davidson Truilo, who’s making her Repertory Theatre debut, but who’s been synonymous with the performing arts in Volusia County (and well beyond) for decades: This is Julia Davidson Truilo of Daytona Beach’s late Seaside Music Theater, itself once one of the jewels in her father Tippen Davidson’s performing arts empire, which collapsed a few years ago under gamma rays of a different sort.
Beyond Daytona Beach, Truilo’s credits include Off-Broadway, national tours and international concerts. A specialist in contemporary music, she made her solo Carnegie Hall debut as the recipient of the Center for Contemporary Opera’s International Competition prize. Truilo returned to live in the Daytona Beach area in 1996, helping to manage Seaside as well as continuing her performing career. “After the theater closed in 2008 there weren’t many professional opportunities close home, so I was always travelling,” Truilo said through a Repertory Theatre release. “I learned about City Rep shortly after returning from a stint in Nunsense at the West Virginia Public Theatre. I was so impressed by the programming and the work I saw, I couldn’t wait to be involved.”
She added: “Marigolds is a play that I have loved ever since I first read it back in high school And Beatrice is a great role, a woman who struggles against everything that life has handed her, dragged down by circumstance and by her own fragile psyche.” The fragile psyche part aside—Trilo is not known for fragility of any kind—there’s more to her Beatrice role than good casting, an added dramatic dimension that the late Zindel—or the late Davidson for that matter—would have appreciated. Tillie isn’t speaking only for herself when she declares: “Some of the mutations will be good ones—wonderful things beyond our dreams—and I believe, I believe this with all my heart, the day will come when mankind will thank God for the strange and beautiful energy from the atom.”
“The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds,” by Paul Zindel, directed by John Sbordone. Performances: April 27 and 28 at 7:30 p.m., April 29 at 2 p.m., May 3, 4 and 5 at 7:30 p.m. At Hollingsworth Gallery, at City Market Place, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, behind Walmart (see map). Tickets are $15 at the door. Box office voice mail: 386/585-9415.