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

Jo Van Fleet and Pamela Kinsley in the 1971 Studio Arena production.

When Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds opened at Studio Arena Theatre in 1971, it had just won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. In a coup of casting the production starred Jo Van Fleet, an actress of astonishing power who had won a Tony Award for The Trip to Bountiful and an Oscar for her first film role, East of Eden, starring Julie Harris and James Dean. These were the Neal Du Brock years, the days when the roguish and ill-behaved artistic director was forging a path that put Studio Arena at the forefront of the Regional Theater Movement.

The play was performed years later at TheaterLoft. This week, Buffalo gets a new glimpse at Zindel’s compelling play, and in an entirely altered theater landscape. Once dominated by a single professional Equity theater that hired out of town, Buffalo has lost is resident Equity house, but boasts an abundance of small professional theaters using local talent. This production at the New Phoenix Theatre on the Park has been directed by Loraine O’Donnell, and stars local actors Betsy Bittar, Arin Lee Dandes, Anne Roaldi Boucher, Diane M. Cammerata, and Zoe Diana.

The play tells the story of a dysfunctional family headed by Beatrice, a woman with two daughters, Ruth and Tillie. Shy Tillie is intellectually gifted; it is her science fair project that gives the play its lengthy title. Far from encourage her talented daughter, Beatrice undermines her at every turn.

It is interesting to note that in addition to the estimable Van Fleet, the Studio Arena production also starred Pamela Kinsley, who achieved fame on television’s nighttime drama, Dynasty, as Pamela Bellwood. I recently met Bellwood in Hollywood. She wept when presented with photographs of herself as a young actress in the Studio Arena production, courtesy of the Studio Arena Collection in the Buffalo State, Butler Library Archives. “I have never seen these pictures before. This was one of my very first professional jobs!” She recalled Van Fleet to be a difficult yet remarkable actress, and recalled the experience of working in Buffalo to be one of the most extraordinary of her career.

For details about the New Phoenix production, see the On the Boards section.