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Nothing is quite as fleeting in the theater as the fame of a one-hit playwright. Fresh-faced actors get swamped with offers the day critics suggest they have star power. Hot new directors get hired away instantly for films and television. Even set and lighting designers find that fame is a cumulative process. But playwrights spend months or even years working their way back into the limelight, knowing that if they don’t create a second hit while audiences still remember their first, they’ll disappear.

That’s what happened to the author of 1970’s Pulitzer-winning smash, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and more’s the pity. Even devoted theatergoers will have forgotten Paul Zindel since his drama about the sometimes comic, mostly alarming travails of two daughters and their mother-from-hell became a community-theater staple. So much so that at American Century Theater (ACT), before hearing the phone conversation in which the author first hints that Beatrice, his bathrobed, vaguely slatternly leading lady, might be half-mad, the program notes about the splash the playwright made originally sound like pure hyperbole.

What a difference that first scene makes, with its one-sided, double-edged repartee. On the phone, the boozy, clearly troubled Beatrice (Maureen Kerrigan) sounds like the essence of motherly concern to the teacher who has called. Has her bright younger daughter, Tillie, really said she’s being prevented from attending school, she marvels. Now, why would Tillie say that? Beatrice cares so much about her children’s studies that she “provides them with 75-watt light bulbs right here at their desks.” Her eyes rove the room as she says this, searching for the desks. Around her are shelves piled high with junk, a caged rabbit, a table, a sofa, and the cowering Tillie (Madeleine Mager). No desks.

Beatrice sees the desks. In a world that has given her nothing and from which she expects even less, she sees whatever the hell she wants to see. That Tillie is gifted and might have a future makes her monstrous in her mother’s eyes, while ditzy, vicious older sister Ruthie (Amy McWilliams) is deemed in need of protection. Dreams have crashed for Beatrice, and she lets audiences know between the lines of this opening conversation that she’s determined to make them crash for everyone else.

As opening scenes go, it’s a corker, and it sets in motion a melodrama as old-fashioned and as effective in ACT’s production as the domineering-parent classics it so resembles—Frank D. Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses and Tennessee Williams’…oh, take your pick. The play’s one flaw is that Zindel articulates his “gamma ray” metaphor overinsistently, as if audiences might somehow miss his point. Stated baldly—children exposed to toxic parenting either grow up stunted or mutate into double-bloomers—it sounds dumb. But it plays strongly, and that’s what matters.

Donald R. Martin’s direction is gracefully matter-of-fact and bolstered by fine performances. Kerrigan makes the self-dramatizing, egocentric Beatrice a convincingly erratic terror, whether clad in booze-stained terrycloth or the tattered, overfeathered finery of an earlier era. Mager’s bright but bewildered Tillie starts out fragile but exposes a spine of steel when pressed. And though McWilliams is far too old to be persuasive as a teenager, she flounces so energetically as dim-bulb Ruthie that you end up buying the character. Martin has them bouncing off one another as if they were atoms in one of Tillie’s science experiments, attracting and repelling one another in that round robin of perfectly matched tortures that so often stood in for family life in plays of the ’50s. Playwrights haven’t been as reckless about striking sentimental chords since then, and domestic dramas have consequently lost much of the emotional kick they had when well-made plays really were well-made.

That’s probably why Zindel’s arrival in 1970 garnered hats-in-the-air responses from critics who were never so responsive again. The New York Daily News called Marigolds “a great human drama.” Women’s Wear Daily labeled the evening (which was competing at the time with The Great White Hope, Man of La Mancha, and Fiddler on the Roof) “the most satisfying in the city.” And the New York Post opened its review with, “Let’s start with a single, simple word: Power.”

Overstated? Possibly. But not by a lot.CP