Encore Michigan

Flint Rep’s ‘Man in the Moon Marigolds’ wickedly transforming

Review September 16, 2019 Bridgette Redman

FLINT, Mich.–Flint Repertory Theatre has a way of taking classic pieces of American theater and performing them like they’ve never been seen before.

They did it last year with “The Glass Menagerie” and they’re doing it again this year with their season opener of Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.

The play, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1971, opens in a dilapidated home where shy, awkward Tillie, ostensibly the main character and definitely the protagonist, is pursuing a love of science despite the opposition of her domineering mother Beatrice and her outgoing, popularity-seeking sister Ruth.

Director Kathryn Walsh, who last year directed Flint Rep’s all-woman show “The Wolves,” again works with an all-woman cast in a performance that plumbs the depths of each family member, putting the spotlight on their complexities and layers.

Walsh knows how to work each moment, drawing upon the strengths of her actors, never being afraid to draw a scene out in this one hour and 40 minute show. She conducts the emotions in such a way that when the madness finally explodes, the audience has been fully drawn in and is as much on edge as the characters themselves.

Ava Katharine Pietras captures the stillness of Tillie, the inner strength that is never specifically described in the dialogue but which she personifies. She is always out of step with the others around her. While this initially makes her awkward and at risk of being a victim, it ultimately blossoms like her marigolds, and Pietras shows why Tillie is a survivor, the only optimist in a radiated world.

She also has beautiful smug moments with her sister where Pietras gives the audience hints early on at her character’s inner strength.

Claire Joliffe is master of the flounce as she speaks and moves with all the confidence of the teenage mean girl type. Of course, neither Zindel nor Walsh are content to simply cast a type, and Joliffe aptly creates a Ruth who is vulnerable and fragile beneath her cruel actions. Joliffe instills Ruth with a nervous energy that lashes out in a mirroring of her volatile mother.

Then there is Janet Haley as Beatrice.

There is doing a role and then there is owning it. Many famous women have performed this role, but Haley’s performance towers above them.

What makes an actor transcendent? Is it her voice? Her intelligence? Her motions? Her choices? Is it all of them bundled up so tightly to the point where she is so immersed in the role, so commanding on the stage, that you cannot take your eyes off her? Haley embodies all these things. She is an elemental force in this show.

Just as Othello often becomes a play about Iago, “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” is easily transformed into a play about its antagonist, especially in the hands of Haley who takes Beatrice on this revelatory journey. Every motion matters. Every inflection matters. Haley has clearly thought about each choice and every time makes the daring one, the one that more deeply reveals who Beatrice is and why she is so toxic.

Two other women flesh out this story. Madelyn Porter plays Nanny, a woman descended into dementia and abandoned to the care of Beatrice, who is paid $50 a week to look after her. She is mostly a vehicle to show Beatrice’s cruelty, but Porter does a splendid job of exhibiting behavior that adds stress to the pressure cooker of a home she’s been inserted into, alternately showing confusion and simple happiness. The percussion of her walker also amps up the tension of her scenes, which she provides with precision.

Meredith Deighton has one scene as Janice, Tillie’s competitor in the science competition. She provides comic relief in an otherwise dark show.

There’s also a rabbit.

Flint Rep’s production has an intensity to the realism, from the rabbit droppings scattered on the stage to the actors who always dial seven numbers when making a phone call on the rotary phone. Care is taken of every detail for a fully immersive experience.

Scenic designer Lauren Nigri plastered two stories of set with yellowed newspapers that had the print and type face of newspapers from the 1970s. Lisa Bilaski work on props is thorough, filling the house with items that already look worn and dated in 1970–from the manual typewriter to the electric hot plate to the dog-eared yellow pages. Everything was thoughtfully of the period and contributed to the telling of the story. In one performance of the play, a pile of family detritus in the corner of the stage tumbled down after a few slams of the door. Accident perhaps, but it, and the actors’ reaction, was delicious.

Likewise, Jen Fok’s lighting design was moody and effective, especially in a scene with a storm.

Zindel’s show is always thought-provoking with Tillie’s science experiment an all-too-apparent metaphor for the radioactive home environment in which the play takes place. In the hands of Flint Rep, Director Walsh, the creative team, and the five fine actors in the show it transforms into an intense experience that is sure to imprint itself on the hearts and memories of all who see it.