March 12 2009 12:00 AM

Williamston blooms bright with dark Gamma Rays


You know a play is good when you find yourself still talking and thinking about it two days after seeing it. Williamston Theatre’s production of Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer-winning play “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man–in-the Moon Marigolds” pairs a tight script with taut acting, and the insights after watching it keep coming in waves.

At the center of the play is Matilda ‘Tillie’ Hunsdorfer, played by Michigan State University student Jennifer Shafer, a shy and insecure high school student with a brilliant grasp and articulation of the metaphysical aspects of the natural world and scientific study.

Shafer is at her brightest and best in the sun-lit monologues at the play’s beginning and end, delivering spectacular lines with great teen-aged passion. She contrasts these moments with well-acted scared silence and furtive looks throughout most of the play, as Tillie unsuccessfully tries to escape her mother’s withering diatribes by hiding in the woodwork.

To say Tillie’s mother, Beatrice, played by Emily Sutton-Smith, overshadows her daughter is understatement; she blocks her out like the moon during a solar eclipse. For this performance, Sutton-Smith transmogrifies her normally attractive face into a cruel mask of angry despair; Sutton-Smith borders on evil in this role.

Modern-day America is full of families that neither understand nor appreciate the emerging intelligences of their adolescent offspring, and Beatrice is a particularly noxious example — bitter, drunk, disillusioned and emotionally abusive.

Tillie’s slightly older sister Ruth, played by Kellyn Uhl, is a more sassy teen who seems to hold her own while mixing it up co-dependently with her vitriolic mother, but she ultimately disintegrates under stress into epileptic seizures.

Adding texture to the play is Gloria Vivalda as the aged Nanny, a non-speaking role that draws considerable attention when she is on stage.

Despite the relentlessness of the Hunsdorfer family dance of dysfunction, Tillie seems to emerge intact at play’s end — a testament to the ability of the youthful human spirit, in some cases, to transcend adversity.

The underlying sub-text of this play, which debuted in 1964, is the hint of a feminist uprising about to burst on the American scene. One almost has empathy for the beaten down Beatrice, referenced by Ruth at one point by her high school epithet of “Betty the Loon”: Almost.

‘The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the- Moon Marigolds’

Through March
1 8 p.m. Thursday & Friday 3 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday 2 p.m.
Sunday Williamston Theatre, 122 S. Putnam St., Williamston $15-$24
(517) 655-SHOW www.williamstontheatre.org