There are only a few moments in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds when Tillie, a long-suffering victim of both the garden-variety cruelties of her high school and the more sickening ones of her family, actually gets to speak.
In most cases, to make that happen the lights have to dim around her, forcing the more verbal characters into darkness. There's her mother Beatrice (Michelle Jasso), who's never recovered from her own high school hell, never leaves the house, and takes it all out on her daughters. Then there's sister Ruth (Alona Bach), who will say anything--a lie, a cruelty--to get attention.
But in one scene of Paul Zindel's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, Tillie does speak up, in front of her whole school. It's the science fair--a weighty moment for a girl who is "in love" with the very word "atom." At first the volume of her microphoned voice makes her recoil. But her passion for her subject soon carries her through a beautiful presentation. When she concludes by saying that her experiment, from which the play gets its title, has made her "feel important," it is a sublime moment of triumph over adversity: Though her environment conspires to make her feel small, she finds, through the smallest unit of matter, a way to feel big.
That director Katja Rivera casts an actual high schooler, Julia Belanoff, in the role amplifies the pathos of the moment. Audiences have gotten used to seeing professionals in their 20s play kids' roles, it can be easy to forget the potency of ingenuously wide eyes and an unaffectedly girlish voice.
A few of Rivera's other choices don't serve the play. Maxx Kurzunski's sound design, with its sweet, metallophone-based compositions, would feel more at home in a Wes Anderson movie. Here, it only cutesifies scenes that don't need any more sentiment ladled on. And Jasso's performance, while showing her character's deep insecurities, jealousies and, underneath the abuse, some real love and pride, becomes unhinged a little too early; her character has less of a journey to take as a result.
But Rivera deftly teases out the play's essence: the ripple effects of trauma, the beauty and power of knowledge, and the impact a good teacher can have. (Zindel, who wrote the play in 1964, came from a single-parent home and became a high school science teacher.)
Zindel's play fits well with Custom Made's mission of theater with a social conscience. Tillie may have been able to find some sense of self and purpose amidst her toxic environment, to over the course of the play grow up a little too quickly and become the closest thing her home has to an adult. But lurking behind this story of one triumphant spirit is the suggestion of all the other students who have to fight to go to school but don't beat the odds.
In our own era of gross inequality and vicious cutbacks, it behooves us to use theater to investigate those who start out with, as Beatrice says, a "half-life": "one daughter with half a mind; another who's half a test tube; half a husband--a house half full of rabbit crap--and half a corpse."
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds continues through Dec. 11 at the Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough (at Bush), S.F. Admission is $25 - $32. For tickets call (510) 207-5774 or visit custommade.org.