Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1027
The teenaged Tillie Hunsdorfer describes her fascination with the wonder of the atom. Her mother, Beatrice, is in their cluttered home, speaking on the phone with Mr. Goodman, one of Tillie’s teachers. Mr. Goodman is concerned about Tillie’s withdrawn nature and her repeated absences. It soon becomes apparent that Beatrice...
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The teenaged Tillie Hunsdorfer describes her fascination with the wonder of the atom. Her mother, Beatrice, is in their cluttered home, speaking on the phone with Mr. Goodman, one of Tillie’s teachers. Mr. Goodman is concerned about Tillie’s withdrawn nature and her repeated absences. It soon becomes apparent that Beatrice is responsible for Tilllie’s absences from school, claiming that she needs her to take care of errands around the house. In reality, Tillie finds solace in her science class, and school is an escape from her dismal domestic life.
Beatrice threatens to chloroform the rabbit that Mr. Goodman gave to Tillie unless Tillie takes care of the rabbit droppings immediately. Tillie’s older sister Ruth appears, looking for lipstick and referring to it as “Devil’s Kiss.” She announces that Tillie’s appearance at the science assembly was the cause of much laughter in the auditorium. Beatrice offers Ruth a cigarette in exchange for a back-scratch. During this exchange, it is revealed that Ruth spent time in a sanitarium after her father died and is troubled by nightmares.
Tillie’s interest in science increases as her teacher gives her some marigold seeds that have been exposed to varying degrees of radiation. While Tillie is tending to her experiment, Beatrice reads the newspaper and speculates wildly about business prospects. The family’s elderly boarder, Nanny, appears, supported by her walker. She neither speaks nor shows any signs of comprehending the activity around her. Beatrice addresses Nanny loudly and mocks her to her blank face. Nanny’s daughter, a successful business woman, does not have time to take care of her, so Nanny is now in Beatrice’s “care.”
Nanny is the latest of a string of boarders with terminal illnesses that have been the primary source of the family’s income. The boarders’ grotesque ailments are also the source of Ruth’s recurrent nightmares. One boarder had worms in his legs. Beatrice continues to express her frustration with how her life has turned out. She describes herself as the best dancer in school, smart, and popular until she married the wrong man. Again, she gets Tillie’s attention by threatening to kill her pet rabbit. Nanny’s shuffling to the bathroom annoys Beatrice, and she explodes at the end of the scene. She says that the half-life of Tillie’s cobalt-exposed flowers is nothing compared to Beatrice: She is the original half-life, with a daughter who has half a mind; another who is half a test tube, half a corpse; and a house half-full of rabbit droppings.
Beatrice again speaks with Mr. Goodman on the phone. She flirts with him and expresses her concern about having radioactive flowers in the house, as she has heard radioactivity can cause sterility. At the end of her conversation, a scream is heard from upstairs. Ruth has had another nightmare, and Beatrice calms her down. A storm has caused the electricity to go out, and the two sit in a chair downstairs in the darkness. Ruth begins to describe her dream, but Beatrice does not want to hear anything unpleasant. Ruth begs her to tell the story of the wagon, even though it is clear that she has heard this story many times. Beatrice describes how she took her father’s vegetable cart while he was asleep one afternoon and rode it all over town. This story reveals how attached Beatrice was to her father, a produce vendor who took care of her after her mother died. Beatrice also recounts a recurrent nightmare that is symbolic of her frustrated desires.
At the end of act 1, Ruth exuberantly rushes into the house. She announces that Tillie is a finalist in their school’s science fair. Beatrice does not share Ruth’s excitement and reluctantly answers the phone to speak to the school’s principal. Beatrice’s anxiety about joining her daughter on stage with the other mothers comes to a head when she yells at the principal over the phone. Beatrice is afraid that she will be the target of ridicule in the same way as Tillie. She even calls Tillie “ugly.” Tillie is in tears and Beatrice, realizing how much she has hurt her daughter, comforts her.
Two weeks later, the family is preparing to attend the science fair. Ruth tells Tillie that the only competition she has to worry about is Janice Vickery’s cat skeleton, which she proceeds to describe in grisly detail. Ruth also mentions that she heard two of the teachers talking about Beatrice and how her nickname used to be “Betty the Loon.” Ruth manipulates Tillie into giving her the rabbit by promising not to say anything to their mother about what she overheard.
Beatrice has dressed herself up for the occasion. Tillie says she looks beautiful. Beatrice nervously fusses over Tillie’s outfit. Ruth has dressed herself in her usual too-tight sweater in the hopes of attending the event, but Beatrice insists that she stay home and look after Nanny. In her frustration, Ruth tells Beatrice that all the teachers are waiting for her to show up so they can laugh at her. A heated exchange follows and Ruth reneges on her promise to Tillie by calling Beatrice “Betty the Loon.” Visibly shaken by this revelation, Beatrice orders Ruth to go with Tillie to the school.
Janice Vickery, Tillie’s chief competitor in the science fair, describes the process by which she put together a cat skeleton in lurid detail. Meanwhile, Beatrice has been drinking. She calls Nanny’s daughter to take Nanny away and proceeds up the stairs carrying the rabbit cage and a bottle of chloroform. Tillie presents the findings of her experiment at the science fair.
When Tillie and Ruth return with the news that Tillie won first prize, Beatrice announces that the rabbit is in Ruth’s room and needs to be buried. Ruth has a violent seizure. After the convulsions subside, Tillie affectionately tucks her sister into bed while Beatrice announces that she hates the world. The final scene is Tillie’s speech at the science fair, in which she describes the beauty and potential of the atom.