Thursday, January 5, 2012

Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds Bloom at Dramaworks

There seems to be a pattern in Dramaworks' choice of productions or perhaps it is just a theme that permeates fine playwriting, mothers (or fathers) that are controlling in some way, by playing on sympathies, living within illusions, or by downright emotional abuse. According to Bill Hayes, the Producing Artistic Director of Dramaworks and the Director of its new production, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds by Paul Zindel, "Zindel wrote a brutally honest piece about a family much like his own; the father is gone, and the mother is impoverished – not just financially, but emotionally." And for Bill, the play "resonates so deeply for me....[as it], in the end, celebrates teachers."

Yesterday afternoon, before we saw the preview performance last night, we attended a "lunch and learn" session at the theatre and met the actors and heard Bill talk passionately about the play. It is an interesting choice of plays, all female actors, although there is the off stage character of Mr. Goodman, a teacher, who nonetheless figures prominently in the plot. Bill said the play was chosen, not only because of its relevancy (perhaps more relevant today than when it was written in 1964), but it also balances the more male dominated play that preceded it at Dramaworks, All My Sons, and the one that will follow this season, The Pitmen Painters.

Indeed, the themes of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds pack a relevance in today's world, the single working mother, bully victimization of a child by her peers, alcoholism, parent abuse, and the role of the teacher beyond the classroom (as Bill said, we've all had a teacher that has changed our lives in some way).

It was interesting to hear the actors tell their versions of the characters they play. The three girls in the play, Arielle Hoffman. Skye Coyne, and Gracie Connell are all 17 in real life, just beginning their journeys into the artistic world, and one can tell they bonded as they prepared for this production.

Laura Turnbull, a veteran actor who plays the lead, movingly explained how it feels to be acting opposite her own daughter, Arielle Hoffman, knowing that she is going off to college next year and this might be Laura's only opportunity to work with her professionally. She felt she could play such an adversarial role with her real daughter, only because they do not have any of those issues so it is but playacting (but, oh, what performances).

Interestingly, many of Dramaworks past productions have touched upon similar themes. The most recent one, All My Sons, where the parents live a life of illusions and lies. And then there was last year's masterful production, one of my very favorites, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, with some parallels to Marigolds, where daughter Maureen is left with caretaking responsibility for her 70- year old cantankerous, controlling mother. Also from the prior year, is their production of Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, yet another Dramaworks choice I take very personally: dysfunctional families are the stuff of great modern theatre.

So Dramaworks is walking on familiar ground with its new production about a single mother, Beatrice Hunsdorfer, who has had some bad breaks in life and now is left with two daughters and herself to support and ends up turning all her disappointment and anger towards them. She is a misanthrope with the mission of destroying happiness where she sees it, a formidable antagonist for her introverted younger daughter, Tillie, who is also bullied by her classmates. A life buoy is thrown to Tillie by her science teacher, Mr. Goodman, in the form of a science project, to study the effects radiation has on marigolds. Her teacher also gives her a pet rabbit, which becomes just another object of Beatrice's hatred, and something Tillie's older sister, Ruth, jealously yearns to possess. Ruth is fighting for her life too, but more under the spell of her mother, more like her mother, unlikely to break free.

As Laura Turnbull explained at the lunch and learn, one of the difficulties playing Beatrice is to try to preserve some sympathetic reaction by the audience as Beatrice's path to self-destruction has to an extent been paved by circumstance. Well, last night -- even though it was technically a preview -- Laura Turnbull gave a bravura performance, one of the most memorable ones we've seen in a long time. I was mesmerized by it as there are parallels to my own life and mother, who never really understood her self-imposed prison of a miserable marriage. She was racked with guilt and rage, sometimes turning to alcohol for consolation. I have seen my mother in the same drunken stupor as Beatrice, although Beatrice mostly lives in that stupor on a daily basis. And like Beatrice, my mother was what I call a "crazy-maker," wreaking emotional destruction to most in her wake.

Laura Turnbull's performance is full of passion, physically demanding, and if one had only a single reason to see this play, her extraordinary accomplishment inhabiting this role would be it. You have only to hear her deliver the line that ties the play's title to her sad life: "Half-life! If you want to know what a half-life is, just ask me. You're looking at the original half-life!’’

Arielle Hoffman gives a carefully measured performance as the shy, abused, vulnerable daughter, Tillie, a perfect balance in the play, the voice of hope for the future -- that a "good mutation" will come out of the muck and the mire of her upbringing. She strives to escape the gravitational pull of her mother, simply stating "my experiments make me feel important." Arielle Hoffman has the audience carefully listening to her every word.

Her sister in the play, Ruth, is played by Skye Coyne, who, like Laura Turnbull's role, requires a dialed-up emotional level. Ruth is also abused by her mother, but protects herself by simply taking it, or by giving it back. There are some dark undertones in her character, the intimation that she was treated for mental illness (no wonder) and that she suffers from epilepsy. If Beatrice's life was ruined by circumstances, Ruth seems to be heading towards the same end. And while Ruth can be cruel towards her younger sister, Coyne walks a fine line as well, tugging at the audience's empathy. Her performance is equally memorable.

A minor role goes to Gracie Connell's role as Janice Vickery, Tillie's science fair adversary. She gives almost a tongue in cheek recitation of how she boiled the skin off a dead cat to use its skeleton so one can imagine what kind of person she is and how she treats Tillie.

The other minor role, that of Beatrice's boarder, Nanny, involves no dialogue but is actually a substantive role in the play and is wonderfully performed by Harriet Oser, a veteran of many Florida theatre productions. Although Nanny ostensibly serves little function in the plot, Nanny's role is highly symbolic. She is there to share in the abuse that Beatrice spares for no person or rabbit, and she is there as a harbinger of Beatrice's future (assuming she doesn't kill herself or die early of alcoholism). We also learn that Beatrice has had other boarders before, ones who have died, or have gone away, not surprising given they were all exposed to Beatrice's toxicity. I particularly noted the brilliant contrivance that was used on stage by Nanny, her medical walker for getting about, the slow cadence of which is like a leitmotif of time's passing, running out for all on stage but Tillie who carries the hope of the future.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is Paul Zindel's best known work, winning the 1971 Pulitzer Prize, and one can see the influences of Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. In fact, Albee was Zindel's mentor and creative writing teacher in the late 1950's. In many ways, it is a play to simply be experienced rather than to be analyzed. It is an actor's play and it's measure of success will hinge on their performances, and Dramaworks has pros at work in this production, some experienced and some upcoming.

Bill Hayes is the Director, or, as he likes to put it, "the conductor," but he is more than that, having the opportunity to mentor three young actors, his giving that special gift as he received it from his mentor, Steve Mouton, decades before. And Hayes has some masterful help in the production, a fabulous set by Michael Amico, taking advantage of every square inch of Dramaworks' new, expanded theatre, the careful detail of James Danford, the Production Stage manager, Lighting (subliminally communicating gamma rays) by Sean Dolan, and Sound by Steve Shapiro.

At the lunch and learn we spoke in some detail with Laura Turnbull, not knowing what a tour de force performance we would be treated to later in the evening, and she suggested that we see the play sometime again after the preview. It will be hard to find areas needing improvement, but maybe we will return, if only to again hear Beatrice look at the audience near the play's end and deliver the dagger: "I hate the world!"

This is a follow up to what I wrote two weeks ago: the January 20 Wall Street Journal published a terrific review of the play.