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

by Paul Zindel
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The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 767

In two acts, The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds juxtaposes the explosive emotional conflicts of the Hunsdorfer family against the ordered, logical pursuits of science to reveal that, like the experimental marigolds, people also mutate in response to external forces. As the play opens, Tillie Hunsdorfer introduces this theme with a voice-over in which she marvels that the atoms in her hand were once contained in different parts of the earth. The scene then shifts to the Hunsdorfer home, formerly a vegetable shop run by Beatrice’s father. The audience hears the single mother Beatrice Hunsdorfer speaking on the phone to Mr. Goodman, Tillie’s science teacher, about the reasons Tillie has been absent. Although Beatrice speaks in a complimentary fashion, once she hangs up the phone, her duplicity is revealed. She berates Tillie for putting her in the position of having to speak to the school, even though Beatrice is responsible for keeping Tillie home.

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Tillie’s sister Ruth enters, states that Tillie has become the laughingstock of the school, and adds that the school keeps a file on the family. As Beatrice worries about the contents of the file, the stage goes dark, and Tillie is heard marveling with Mr. Goodman at the fountain of atoms produced in a science experiment. When the lights go back up, Tillie readies boxes of dirt for marigold seeds that have been exposed to cobalt-60 in order to study its effects. Beatrice enters with plans of her own: She wishes to transform the house into a tea shop, and as she imagines the changes she would make, she asks Tillie about her experiment. Tillie explains the idea of radioactive half-life to Beatrice, and the elderly boarder Nanny enters. Beatrice speaks loudly and with artificial sweetness to Nanny but voices spiteful malevolence behind her back. Beatrice sarcastically mocks Nanny’s professional daughter, who does not want to be bothered with Nanny’s care. Beatrice ends the scene in an exhortation that connects her misery and the fate of the marigolds: She tells Tillie that she considers her life the “original” half-life.

The next scene opens with Beatrice again on the phone to Mr. Goodman, this time worrying about how the radioactive marigolds might affect Tillie. He reassures her, and as the stage goes dark, Ruth screams from her room: She is having a seizure. Beatrice calms Ruth by talking of a happier past, before Beatrice’s father became ill. The stage again goes dark, and when the lights come up, an inebriated Beatrice dashes about, tossing around papers and junk as she prepares to open her tea shop. She announces plans to take control of her life: She intends to get rid of Nanny, and she tells Tillie to get rid of her pet rabbit. In the midst of this revelation, Ruth enters and proudly announces that Tillie is a finalist in the science fair. The principal’s call follows, but his request that Beatrice attend upsets her. Tillie begins to cry as Beatrice berates her, then stops, as the act ends.

Act 2 begins as Tillie prepares for the science fair. Ruth rails about Janice Vickery, Tillie’s primary competitor, and tells Tillie that the teachers at school are anxious to see what “Betty the Loon” (Beatrice) will wear. Tillie gives Ruth the rabbit to silence her. Beatrice enters, and, as Ruth gets her coat, Beatrice reminds her that she must stay home to look after Nanny. In anger, Ruth lashes out at Beatrice, calling her “Betty the Loon.” Beatrice is visibly defeated and shouts at Ruth to go with Tillie as the lights go down and she begins to sob.

As the lights come up at the science fair, Janice Vickery gives her presentation involving the darkly comic process of skinning a dead cat. The scene then moves to a drunken Beatrice, who is leaving a message...

(The entire section contains 3431 words.)

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