You may catch a faint echo of The Glass Menagerie when you hear Beatrice's old high school nickname in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the Moon Marigolds, now in a stunning CPCC Theatre revival at Pease Auditorium. Or how about a whiff of The Diary of Anne Frank when our precocious protagonist Tillie Hunsdorfer addresses us directly?
You certainly won't be surprised that Paul Zindel's drama won the Pulitzer Prize as long ago as 1971. Otherwise, with all Beatrice's mistreatment of Tillie and her epileptic elder sister Ruth, seemingly well-known - and not totally unexpected - at that same high school, you'd have to wonder why nobody from Child Protective Services hasn't knocked on the front door by the time we're halfway into Act 1. Even back in the '80s, the siblings' teachers would be expected to be more proactive in sounding the alarm.
So Beatrice's tyranny continues unabated as we tensely watch. When limping Laura was our protagonist, we could center our concern on her fragile psyche and her fragile glass figurines. Here Zindel has strewn fragile targets all over the Hunsdorfers' apartment. That inventory includes the potted flowers and artwork that are Tillie's science project (and the title of the show), Tillie's cherished pet rabbit Peter, an elderly boarder who slowly roams the apartment with a walker, and of course, the abused sisters.
All of these are imperiled by the bitter, volatile, and vindictive Beatrice, particularly after she's tied on a few drinks. She is one mean mama, but Zindel poignantly shows us, just before intermission, that even in the middle of her stormiest explosions, her buried humanity can still be reached.
Kathryn Stamas has portrayed flawed mothers in the past, including Rose in Gypsy and M'Lynn in Steel Magnolias, but the directors of those shows got only a fraction of what Melissa Ohlman-Roberge extracts from her here - surely the meanest mama we've seen in Charlotte since Polly Adkins trod the boards in August: Osage County two years ago. In her climactic drunk scene, I'd say she might actually duel Adkins to a draw, quite a feat.
Meanwhile the director's daughter, KC Roberge, justifies the accolades I penned for her in this week's Best Of Charlotte issue, unfailingly combining meek trepidation with a sunny durability - unmistakably as much the marigold as Laura was the glass unicorn in Menagerie - cheering us with the possibility that she might turn out to be a fortunate mutation. That's if, she survives this mother.
Nor is the excellence of Abby Corrigan easily forgotten as Ruth, since the elder sister must be counted on, in a household populated by a tyrannical mom and a submissive younger sister, to stir the pot at key moments. The rail-thin Corrigan does this with a pesky, jabbing gusto, and her climactic epileptic seizure was a wonder to behold.
The last Charlotte production of this play, a guerilla effort by Seat of Our Pants Players that was one of the prime bombs of 1997, nevertheless brought a Loaf Theatre Award to Tommi Jones for her wordless cameo performance as Nanny, the ancient boarder. Here in far better circumstances, Evelyn Foley's stony dignity is far less conspicuous in its high quality.
Set and lighting design by James Duke as well as costumes by Jamie Varnadore (if you don't take exception to the wigs) are on the same lofty level as the acting - and of course there's a live rabbit! In fact, this CPCC presentation of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds can be reviewed and abbreviated in one brief word: go.