Local theater troup breathes life into a dysfunctional family in ‘Gamma Rays’

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Actors Workshop’s fall production is an intensely lyrical American play, Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.” Despite that sci-fi sounding title taken from the name of a science fair project, the play is about a New York family caught in poverty and despair.
The mother, Beatrice (played by Mary Wheeler) is widowed, narcissistic and violently resentful of the bad hand she has been dealt by the world. She is raising her two daughters in a space once occupied by her father, a vegetable peddler, and the only man she has ever respected. Beatrice vents her frustration and self-loathing on her daughters, Ruth (Francesca Blanchard), who struggles with mental illness and epilepsy, and Tillie (Vera Escaja-Heiss).
Only Tillie has a lifeline that may save her from the family’s dysfunctional vortex. Her science teacher Mr. Goodman has awakened her to the wonders of the universe and her own cosmic existence. Encouraged, Tillie vows to enter and win the school’s science fair. Mr. Goodman provides her with irradiated flower seeds, which she grows to monitor their ability to survive the atom’s invisible assault. (Playwright Zindel, who grew up in a difficult family in Staten Island, was himself a high school chemistry teacher in the town where the play is set.)
To win the prize, Tillie must surpass not only the grisly cat skeleton project of her rival, Janice Vickery (Chenoah Small), but must withstand the undermining derision of her mother and sister. You will be rooting for her, against all odds.
Among all the extravagant speeches and lyrical monologues, keep an eye on the one character who never speaks a single word, Nanny (Patti Smith), the elderly boarder. Nanny gets no respect from Beatrice, who regards her as little more than a paycheck. But Smith’s expressive face and body language make it clear in every moment she is onstage that Nanny is alive inside and doesn’t miss a trick. Smith’s embodiment of old age, the grace and authenticity of movements despite the constraints of stiffness and disability, are one of the visual pleasures of the show.
In a world where most entertainment is delivered to glowing screens large and small, live theater is still something special. We are fortunate to have so much of it, and the finest kind, in Middlebury. When Paul Newman adapted this Pulitzer Prize-winning play to the big screen, he needed a cast of 16 plus extras. MAW and director Ethan Bowen, with only five talented women, one adorable rabbit, and Richard Robson’s stark geometric set, has created a memorable show that should not be missed.
Tickets can be purchased for $22 at Town Hall Theater box office in Middlebury, or call 382-9222, or visit the THT site at www.townhalltheater.org/calendar-and-tickets. There will be five performances: this Friday and Saturday, at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 25, at 2 p.m., and Thursday and Friday, Oct. 29 and 30, at 7:30 p.m.
***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****
“The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds,” by Paul Zindel. At Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater, Oct. 23, 24, 25, 29 and 30. Directed by Ethan Bowen.
Cast: Tillie, Vera Escaja-Heiss; Ruth, Francesca Blanchard; Beatrice, Mary Wheeler; Nanny, Patty Smith; Janice Vickery, Chenoah Small.
Design & Technical Staff: Stage Manager, Dora Greven; Asst. Stage Manager, Tom Noble; Scenic Design, Richard Robson; Costume Design, MaryKay Dempewolf; Lighting Design, Matthew Stone; Sound Design, Sam Hurlburt; Set Construction, Raph Worrick; Properties, Kate Tilton and Gwen Zwickel; Graphic Design, Chris Murray; Program Design, Jeff Olson.

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