Dysfunction junction

11th Street Theater Project revives a Pulitzer play with mixed results

Obviously, a Pulitzer Prize just isn't enough to imbed a playwright in the firmament of American stage greats. Or, to paraphrase a famous line from The Boys in the Band: "So who do I have to fuck around here for a little theatrical posterity?"

Novelist and playwright Paul Zindel nabbed that most prestigious of American literary prizes way back in 1971 for The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, his sad, weird, caustically funny look at the implosion of an all-female household after one member receives a bit of recognition from the outside world. Paul Newman flew the play near the sun when he directed his wife, Joanne Woodward, and their daughter, Nell Potts, in the revamped, rambling, but sometimes painfully beautiful movie version. That version isn't even available on video. Meanwhile, fans of Zindel's duly praised young-adult novels would be hard-pressed to find a copy of his Obie-winning theatrical triumph in the theater section of their favorite superstore.

It's a problem that will likely plague one-hitters Marsha Norman ('night, Mother) and Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart), Pulitzer Prize winners for plays that also feature all-female casts. And though none of these plays deserves the planned obsolescence that seems built into so many of Pulitzer's choices, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds especially deserves a revival for its rich layers of sweet and bitter and its uncompromising, unsentimental, but compassionate look at one very difficult woman. (Zindel has written that the oft-cruel matriarch of this clan drew heavily on his own mother.)

A few things in the script date the play (how often do you hear the phrase "gamma rays" anymore?), but 11th Street Theater Project has managed an attractive reignition of a forgotten scorcher. Yet their flawed production tosses away some of the more tender moments in emphasizing the grotesque human comedy. The script startles the reader--and can sometimes overwhelm actors and audiences--with its refusal to send comforting lessons.

The three tragic clowns Zindel concerns us with are mama Beatrice (Angela Wilson), a reluctant care-provider who dispenses genuine mothering and mordant wit in uneven, unpredictable doses; her oldest daughter, Ruth (Jeannette Chivis), a bossy loudmouth who uses her epileptic seizures to get attention and the odd cigarette from mama; and quiet, bespectacled Matilda (Amy Sommer), who loves science as well as her science teacher Mr. Goodman. Her skills with radioactive marigolds win her a prestigious place at a school science fair, forcing Beatrice to confront a past she's been fearfully mocking from the shelter of their home.

At the opening-night performance, the biggest liability was Angela Wilson's performance as the angry, frightened Beatrice. It's a hugely unsympathetic role--one of the most unmaternal mothers an American playwright has ever created--and therefore especially daring for an actress. So many writers have penned disappointed men, but less often have we been introduced to disappointed women, especially those who're chafing against the "natural" role of motherhood. It's a risky but exciting opportunity. Yet Wilson was terminally cautious, seemingly even a little frightened of this firebreathing nurturer. She could whip up an angry howl when Ruth or Tillie pushed her too far, but the stretches in between lacked the archness and the barely contained inner regret that this role would seemingly call for. Given that director Kevin Grammer had chosen a manic approach to the material (nicely heightened by Bryan Miller's expressionistic lighting), I'd like to see Wilson push herself closer to the top, always using Beatrice's deadpan comic timing as an anchor.

Jeannette Chivis as seizure-prone, attention-starved Ruth may have been too much, flapping around like a giant bird with her wild tantrums and even wilder hair. Yet she earned genuine laughs, and was effective in a let-me-suck-all-the-oxygen-out-of-this-room kind of way that the character suggests. Amy Sommer was sweetly believable as the shy, hopeful Matilda, and wonderfully eloquent in her monologues about the science that will one day (maybe) rescue her from this compost heap of a household. The middle ground between Sommer's whisperiness and Chivis' cackling is once again laid with a firmly realized Beatrice, who in many ways sends cues not only to the other actresses but also to the director about the proper tone of this very difficult material. Somewhere between director Kevin Grammer and Wilson, one of the play's loveliest demonstrations of Beatrice's humanity gets lost--the way she relates her childhood memory of stealing a fruit cart as a means of comforting her seizing daughter Ruth. It's no longer a rare, redemptive demonstration of true nurturing, but a hazy, disconnected memory.

The Dallas actress I keep thinking about for this role was introduced to me not only by 11th Street Theatre Project but by Angela Wilson herself, a playwright of terrific talent. Jeanne Everton spoke Wilson's wise, weary words in George and Scheherazade, sad sad sad in which she played a middle-aged woman who handled disappointment with her gender role through sarcasm. Everton was arch and sympathetic at the same time, a perfect combo for Zindel's Beatrice. I'm not discounting Angela Wilson as an actress; she's written roles comparable to Beatrice, for God's sake. The trick now is to capture with her voice and body what she has so well expressed through her word processor.

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