The first thing that strikes a viewer settling in for a performance of "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds" is that director Dennis Lamberson's set is an absolute mess. Springs poke through a ratty old bed, a dirty mirror is taped to a '60s-era refrigerator, newspapers cover the windows and the place is littered with junk.
The set mirrors the minds of Beatrice (Jessie Horman) and Ruth (Vincenza Spagnuolo), a chain-smoking mother and shrill daughter who hate their lives and do little to hide their sentiments.
The Central Lakes College production, continuing today through Tuesday, is packed with cinematic touches that you don't usually find in a play -- voiceovers, sound effects, a scene lit only by flashlights and looooong stretches without dialogue.
Despite these devices, it's hard to resist labeling Paul Zindel's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Gamma Rays" as "minimalist" -- there are only five characters, and the actors are asked to carry the burden of the dire, dour script. We don't know much about these people, but we can draw cues from the unkempt apartment, Beatrice's tendency to wear a bathrobe all day long, and younger daughter Tillie's (Cassandra Peterson) run-ins with school officials. This is squalor not just in a physical sense, but a universal one. Everyone hates their lives, Zindel seems to say; Beatrice and Ruth are just a little more blunt about it.
And if you need a metaphor, well, Beatrice has a $100-a-month job as a hospice worker. At one point she toys with pouring a kettle of hot water over the head of her patient (Amelia Watson), wondering aloud if the dying woman would even notice.
However, "minimalist" suggests subtle, and "Gamma Rays" is certainly not that. Beatrice and Ruth spend most of the play yelling at each other. More specifically, one yells desperately while the other feigns ignorance. The characters are constantly trying to one-up each other in the art of being annoying.
If you go
What: "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds"
Presented by: Central Lakes College Theatre
Written by: Paul Zindel
Director: Dennis Lamberson
When: 7:30 p.m. today-Saturday, Monday-Tuesday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Dryden Theatre, CLC
Admission: $5 (adults), free (CLC students)
Their specific moments of vulnerable humanity (read: likeability) are fleeting -- Beatrice attempts to show interest in Tillie's science project, but as soon as she hears the phrase "half-life," she's off on a rant about her unfulfilling existence. Ruth is thrilled when she learns Tillie has a chance to do well at the science fair, but the emotion seems borne of a desperate hope that the family can rally around Tillie.
In a clever side-stepping of the "bad childhood" cliche, Tillie seems unaffected by the sound and fury around her. She's depressed, sure, but she has moved beyond it.
But here's the real twist, and it may not be one that Zindel (or Lamberson) intended: As viewers, we aren't wishing for Tillie to have a happy family life. We are simply wishing her whiny mother and sister would go away so she could live in peace.
Like Tillie, Beatrice and Ruth are sad, but in their case the word takes on the alternate meaning. "Gamma Rays" takes petulance and trumps it up as an epidemic.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.