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


ABET opened a two-week run (Oct 17 – Nov 5, 2017) – of “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” by Paul Zindel (1936 –2003). The play received the Obie Award and the Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play in 1970, followed by the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1971.

The story is that of a dysfunctional family and is semi-autobiographical, as Zindel incorporates material drawn from his difficult teen years with an impoverished single mother, and his career as a chemistry teacher prior to his later success as a prolific author, playwright, and screenwriter. Edward Albee’s writing was also influential; he was Zindel’s professor during his undergraduate studies and later became his mentor.

Although written almost fifty years ago, the drama remains relevant, and ABET’s production is haunting and intriguing. The play is directed by Tracy Gallagher, who has worked in theatre throughout Northeast Florida for almost thirty years. Gallagher and Celia Frank, ABET’s Managing Artistic Director have a history with this play; both had roles as college students.

The Hunsdorfer family lives in what was once a produce store converted into to a living space for a family of three plus one boarder. Beatrice, the mother, is widowed, abusive, angry and bitter; an alcoholic and a heavy smoker. She is portrayed with devastating intensity by St. Augustine actress Jessica Ferris. We have seen her in several Limelight productions, most recently in their fine production of “Grapes of Wrath.”

"The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds", Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre, ABET

Beatrice has two daughters who are both in high school. Tillie is portrayed by Mara Grigg, whose stage experience includes over thirty shows in New Jersey prior to moving to Jacksonville to attend the University of North Florida. She is making her local theatre debut with this role, and is superb as the shy dignified young lady who is enamored with science and is pursuing a science project at school. She is growing marigolds that have been exposed to Cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope that can change the characteristics of the flowers.

Ruth, the older daughter is hyperactive, and argues constantly with her mother. While she is more outgoing than her sister, she has a troubling problem, as she is epileptic and often has convulsions. St. Augustine’s Stephanie Santiago gives an outstanding performance in a role that she researched extensively to understand the physical gestures and body language needed to be convincing. We had the opportunity to see her Florida theatre debut during her appearance in Limelight’s production of “I Ought to be in Pictures.”

Nanny is an elderly boarder taken in by Beatrice to supplement her meager finances and is portrayed by Jean Lijo. She uses a walker and never speaks. While her silence may be due to problems related to cognitive impairment, perhaps she is just smart enough not to respond to Beatrice’s abusive language, as she hears herself referred to as a zombie and a corpse. Actually, Nanny may be smarter than she appears, as she plays cards with the family and frequently wins.

Tillie is selected as a science project finalist, and receives her mother’s reluctant permission to attend her school’s awards banquet. Janice Vickery, portrayed by Hannah Cereghino, appears as a rival finalist, who exudes confidence – and adds some humor – as she describes how she prepared a dead cat found on the street for scientific study. And in accordance with our policy of avoiding spoilers, we’ll say no more about the plot.

"The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds", Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre, ABET

The set design by Tracey Gallagher and Ashley Reese captures the family’s disordered life, with trash on the floor, and junk everywhere. The costume design by the Tracey Gallagher and Nancy Dilley has the two sisters dressed in neat clean clothing, although Ruth’s seems a bit provocative for the time period. Beatrice manages to find a dress she can wear to the awards ceremony, but it’s a struggle.

Additional production team members included Shelly Speed (Production Assistant), Azana Shamery (Stage Manager), Ian Chaille (Light/Sound Operator), and Gordon Frank (Light/Sound Tech).

Someone once wrote that theatres should revive great but neglected works, and ABET has done its share throughout the twenty-five years of the theatre’s existence. “Gamma Rays” is a classic story that you won’t soon forget.

The play will remain on stage at 716 Ocean Boulevard in Atlantic Beach, Florida though November 5, 2017. Call 249-7177 for reservations or visit

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.