Transcending family through science

THE LOWE DOWN
By Jim Lowe

If playwright Paul Zindel is to be believed, exposing marigold plants to the radiation of Cobalt 60 results in those too close dying, and those at a greater distance blossoming unto radiant beauties.

In Zindel’s 1971 Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” those flowers serve two purposes.

Middlebury Actors Workshop opened a brilliantly powerful and deeply felt production of this family drama Friday at Town Hall Theater, where it is the resident professional theater.

Beatrice Hunsdorfer and her two teen daughters live in a ramshackle house that was once the familyDisappointed in life, Beatrice is very, very angry and seems determined to take everyone down with her, her daughters in particular.

The outgoing elder daughter Ruth has already lost herself to her mother’s virulent hate, becoming a promiscuous and cynical teen with a tendency toward neurotic convulsions.

The younger teen Tillie has become withdrawn, except for science class – which her mother tries to prevent her attending so she can devote herself to chores at home.

Tillie, however, perseveres and quietly continues her work with her marigolds despite her mother’s ridicule. When Tillie wins the school’s science fair, a very big deal, even the normally hateful Ruth can’t help but take pride in her sister’s achievement. “Nobody was laughing,” Ruth says.

But will their mother Beatrice choose to self-destruct or find salvation in her daughter’s success?

Expertly directed by Ethan Bowen, the Middlebury Actors Workshop production successfully plumbs the depths of this complex family dynamic, thanks much to three fine portrayals. The ensemble was intense and convincing throughout.

Tillie was given real life by Vera Escaja-Heiss, a South Burlington High School freshman. Escaja-Heiss delivered the role sympathetically with a quiet passion and simplicity that proved irresistible.

Francesca Blanchard’s Ruth felt very authentic as the acerbic but unsure teen. Blanchard also delivered dimension to the transition to loving sister still unable to lose touch with her own self-centeredness. (Blanchard is also a professional Vermont singer-songwriter who recently released an album, “Deux Visions,” and embarks on a West Coast tour in November.)

Veteran Barre actress Mary Wheeler delivered a powerhouse performance as Beatrice, offering hatred with style and wit. Wheeler even draws sympathy when revealing Beatrice’s joyful background with her father, then her downward spiral with his death. This was first-rate acting.

Where Wheeler and Bowen could have gone further is with Beatrice’s spurt of joy with her daughter’s achievement. We want to sympathize with Beatrice even for a moment, but it’s difficult.

Actress-dancer Patty Smith provides a few much needed comic moments as Nanny, Beatrice’s elderly boarder and source of income. Chenoah Small also proved entertaining in her cameo as Tillie’s competitor Janice Vickery. And Pete the rabbit was quite convincing as himself.

The physical production beautifully complemented the action on stage. Richard Robson’s artfully tawdry staging was imaginatively lit by Matthew Stone. Marykay Dempewolff’s costumes felt authentic; and sound designer Ralph Hurlburt’s fine musical choices for interludes only added to the enigmatic atmosphere.

Middlebury Actors Workshop’s “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-the-Moon Marigolds” is tough — and deeply rewarding — theater.

Middlebury Actors Workshop

Middlebury Actors Workshop presents “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” by Paul Zindel, Oct. 23-30 at Town Hall Theater

68 S. Pleasant St. in Middlebury. Remaining performances are at 7:30 p.m. today and Friday, Oct. 29 and 30. Tickets are $22, $10 for students; call 802-382-9222, or go online to townhalltheater.org.