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Dusty classic by Paul Zindel pits mental illness against hopeful escape

Matilda grows atomic flowers in her quest for learning and escape from the madness of her environment in the Paul Zindel classic play, "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds."  Limited seats remain.
Matilda grows atomic flowers in her quest for learning and escape from the madness of her environment in the Paul Zindel classic play, "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds." Limited seats remain.
Brian Paulette and courtesy of The Living Room

"The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds"

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Hateful, vicious words spew fourth from Beatrice “Betty the Loon” Hunsdorfer, as portrayed by Melinda McCrary in the Kansas City Actors Theatre version of the Paul Zindel 1970s era play, “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds," now playing to sold out crowds at Kansas City’s The Living Room Theatre, through Aug the 31.

Set in the mid-1960s, the play focuses on one family of a single mother, her two daughters, and a paid border. Beatrice, the main character, consistently lashes out against anyone and everyone because her despicable life never found any success. Zindel's play hints that Beatrice may have been a victim of incest as a child, made poor decisions as a result of her troubled past, and now struggles against the world as she raises her daughters, while consistently destroying any hope of her daughters' successes.

Beatrice suffers from mental illness, alcoholism, low self-esteem, and a downright nasty, hateful disposition. Her main goal in life is to inflict the same pain on others to destroy their hopes, visions, and dreams. No one escapes the acidity of her tongue or the malice of her intent. Her life, filled with disappointment and pain, causes her to pass her pain on to anyone associated with her.

The two daughters, Ruth and Matilda, bear the brunt of their mother’s anguish. The eldest daughter, Ruth, the pretty one, displays signs of mental illness similar to that of the mother, while also struggling through life as an epileptic. The acidity of Beatrice’s hateful nature grows within Ruth. Early in the play, it is obvious that Ruth possesses similar tendencies to those of her mother. What saves Ruth is for beauty and her body, but even those cannot overcome what has been ingrained by Beatrice her entire life.

Matilda, on the other hand, possesses a love of science and a quest for knowledge so foreign to the life she lives. Tillie wants to excel and go to school but Beatrice forces her to stay home, for no apparent reason other than to destroy her daughter’s dreams. Still, Tillie manages to escape long enough to begin a science project where she grows marigolds that have been exposed to Gamma rays.

Zoe London as Tillie and Daria LeGrand as Ruth unite with McCrary to deliver this spellbinding drama. The trio of actresses do not miss a beat as they work through this piece and demonstrate two extremes of human nature. McCrary shows how evil begets evil. LeGrand portrays how mental and physical illnesses can discolor a person’s nature. London’s Tillie propels hope of a positive human spirit to escape even the most dire circumstances to excel.

Give lots of credit to the trio. They produce a spine-tingling performance with tension at every juncture. They well-deserved the standing ovations they receive.

Especially worthy of note, the direction of Kyle Hatley brought this old-time show to new heights. “The effect of Gamma rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” is a forgotten classic of American theater heritage. Aptly, Hatley dusted this off and re-crafted it to display the raw emotions this play the elicits. Count on Hatley to always assemble the best possible cast for his productions.

Not only does the cast and director deserve praise for this production, the entire creative team deserves a standing ovation of its own. The set offers an amazing book into a lower-class residence. The lighting is dramatic throughout the production. The projection used to bridge scenes together created the seamless flow from one scene to the next. The costumes reflected with the socioeconomic status of the family. The props were time appropriate to the mid-1960s. The sound was appropriate for the space. The stage management and scene changes were tight and not detract from the production.

All of the aforementioned elements helped create the perfect atmosphere for KCAT’s production of “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.” According to a spokesman, many of the remaining performances are already sold out. To be sure of seating, book online through the Kansas City Actors Theater website.