The Effect of Gamma Rays on
Gary F. Bell directs, exacting splendid moments from all of his actresses at surprisingly regular intervals. Allison Ginsburg is heartwarming as the daughter dreaming of escape from a tormented household. Jessica Cohen is hard as nails, and harrowing too, as her sister, who seems destined to take after their mother.
Miss Ginsburg (as Tillie) opens the play by inspiring herself (and us) with a story of how we all came to be, thanks to the explosions of supernovae long agoin a speech written ten years before astronomer Carl Sagan popularized the idea on public television, about the forging of complex elements in the hearts of stars, that were later blown across the Universe. That's the up-side to the scientific theme here. The down-side is foretold by the title, and a discussion of radiation exposure to marigold seeds, as part of a school science project: while moderate amounts of radiation may produce impressive mutations, too much can cause another growing plant to quickly wither and die. Likewise, Tillie and her sister thrive or suffer depending on how close they get to their mother. And in this production (often tender, often vicious) there's no doubt about the kind of danger she poses to each of her children.
But (amazingly) for the first two thirds of the story, it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that Beatrice is simply a wretched victim of the events of her own life, and responding to the pressures of impoverished single parenthood in a completely justifiable manner. It's only when her studious daughter seems ready to break free of the cycle of poverty that she's suddenly in danger of being exposed in her madness, and for all her own shortcomings. And that's the danger that desperately propels the story to a riveting conclusion.
The 1972 movie version did not have a mute old woman as the latest in a string of hopeless boarders, who silently endures Beatrice's tauntsthough the movie introduced an important school teacher character onto the screen. Here, Sally Eaton plays the helpless border, just aware enough to be dismayed by her treatment at the hands of Beatrice. Much later (in the play), pretty young Taylor Beidler appears as a science fair competitor with a ghoulishly funny presentation.
I'm not trying to peddle this one as "the pleasures of the bitchy, crazed diva," like Stray Dog's recent Die, Mommie, Die!, but Gamma Rays is so perfectly written and creates such a touching and dramatic mood, that it nearly ranks alongside The Death of a Salesman in its tragedy, both epic and microscopic.
Through March 20, 2010 at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave., St. Louis 63104, immediately south of the Shenandoah Elementary School (between Shenandoah and Sidney Streets), two blocks east of Grand. For information call (314) 865-1995 or visit them on-line at www.straydogtheatre.org.
Photo by John Lamb