One of the greatest American plays ever written, "The Glass Menagerie" is about a controlling, difficult mother and her two children, both trapped by their own devils.
Take that famous play, shoot it full of steroids and you’ve got "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds," the Paul Zindel play currently getting a striking and emotional treatment by Splinter Group, 3211 S. Lake Dr.
Niffer Clarke, on of my favorite Milwaukee actors, delivers an unrelenting and powerful performance as Beatrice, whose natural maternal instincts have been ground into dust by a life filled with emptiness.
This is quite a family.
Beatrice is a slovenly drinker, awash in recrimination over what might have been but never was. She has no hopes, no dreams and no memories to bring anything pleasant into her life. She is in perpetual mourning, drenched in self-pity. At one point, she closes her eyes as she announces, "I almost forgot everything I was supposed to be."
Her oldest daughter is the perky and perpetually on-the-make Ruth (Megan Kaminsky) who suffers from epilepsy, a past nervous breakdown and a typhoon of desire to be the most popular, hottest girl in the class. Ruth is also an inveterate tattle-tale, reporting everything that happens at school to her mother, thereby deepening the chasm where Beatrice resides.
And finally there is Tillie (Kat Wodtke), the plain and beaten down youngest daughter. She has an insatiable curiosity about the world of science (hence the marigolds grown after being exposed to gamma rays) but is in such a shell built by her mother that she seems both unwilling and unable to break free of these freakish bonds.
Whatever hopes or ambitions Tillie has are constantly undermined by her mother. But Tillie manages a triumph when she is selected as a finalist for a prize in the school science project. Tillie tries to share the news with her mother, but the truth stays hidden until Ruth breaks through the door shouting about the good news. "Nobody laughed at her in school today," she shrieks. The news is followed by a phone call from the principal asking Beatrice to join the parents of other finalists on the stage. The phone call sparks the ugliest moment in the play when Beatrice turns on Tillie.
"How could you do this to me," she shouts. "How could you let that man call this house? I have no clothes to wear, do you hear me? I’d look just like you up on that stage, ugly, little you. Do you want them to laugh at us? Laugh at the two of us?"
Mallory Metoxen, who made a spectacular directorial debut last season in "The Understudy" at Renaissance, is at the helm of this intense drama, and she proves that her first hit was no fluke.
This could be an easy play to fall into stereotypes: crazy mother, reclusive daughter, outgoing and bratty other daughter. But Metoxen make sure that these actors all understand that nobody is just one thing. We all have layers, and it’s the exploration of those layers that makes for an interesting life – and for great theater.
Clarke, who was magnificent in the equally magnificent production of "Grey Gardens" at Off the Wall, gives us another deeply troubled woman, only this time there seems to be no redemption. Clarke is a lovely woman, but her face grows tight and tense during the course of the play and, while not ugly, it is a clear reflection of her warped personality.
Kaminsky is striking with her wide mood swings, from perpetually cheerful to bitterly angry to hopelessly mixed up. She is defensive of herself and her past, and the final scene when she has an epileptic seizure is a very realistic moment.
Wodtke’s Tillie is the character with seemingly only one dimension, but she lets us gradually see that still waters do, indeed, run deep. Tillie is the one you root for, hoping she can find a space in this world where all that she is has a chance to be all she can be.
The production is a powerful and demanding play. It demands both honest and sensitive actors, and it demands attention from an audience.
"The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds" runs through Nov. 9 and information and showtimes is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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