Gremlin’s ‘Gamma Rays’: A play with a hopeful heart

When Paul Zindel wrote his play “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-moon Marigolds,” it was 1964, and the atomic age was relatively new. Back then, you might have expected to find characters like those in the play: older people with nostalgic memories of selling vegetables from horse-drawn carts, younger people with dreamy fantasies of the good that might come from radiation-induced genetic mutation. And if that were what this play were about, it would be doomed to irrelevancy as a mere period piece.

Unfortunately, the toxins at the core of this Pulitzer-winning play have a half-life longer than plutonium-244. This is a piece about poverty and hopelessness, about the damage a broken heart can inflict on innocent bystanders, about jealousy and rage and loss. Gremlin Theatre’s sure-footed production, which opened Friday night, treats those themes with the immediacy they deserve. The play feels contemporary in spite of the wall-mounted rotary telephone on the set.

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The play’s title comes from the central character’s school science project, which involves exposing marigold seeds to radiation and observing the effects. The science project becomes a metaphor for the real action of the play, in which a malignant mother exposes human seedlings to a radiation of her own devising. Some of the sprouts bear up better than others.

The hopeful heart of the play belongs to Matilda, or Tillie, the best chance her dysfunctional family has of ever achieving anything to be proud of. Caledonia Wilson plays Tillie as a girl with a curious mind and open heart, an eager student in spite of her mother’s open hostility to her education. Tillie is the child every parent wants; her sister, Ruth, is the child every parent fears, and their mother, Beatrice, is the parent no child should have to endure.

Eleonore Dendy’s Ruth is a perfect counter to the innocent Tillie. Ruth is a world-class manipulator and schemer who regards another person’s need as opportunity for herself. Unlike Tillie, who merely seems stunted by her mother’s influence, Ruth is a twisted soul who has learned to feed off her mother’s rage.

And how that mother can rage. Jodi Kellogg seethes with a contempt born of her own youthful humiliations. She misses no opportunity to insert a barb into every word and gesture. She stubs out a cigarette in one of Tillie’s precious marigold pots, and at the prospect of going out of doors with one of her daughters, she says, “I’ve been seen with worse than you.” It’s a cinch that her daughters have never been seen with worse than her.

This is Gremlin’s last production before the company leaves its space along the Central Corridor light rail line in St. Paul. The play is a powerful reminder of Gremlin’s contributions, and a reason to hope it finds a new home soon.