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

Raleigh Ensemble Players
Through Feb. 27

Without a doubt, the show was fighting the room. The upstairs studio at 213 Fayetteville St. was chilly, even with auxiliary heating units whose fans made the sextet of actors raise their voices a bit. The room’s dimensions left room for 25 people or so to surround Thomas Mauney’s half-homey, half-squalid combination living room/ kitchen of a set.

So here’s why you can’t miss Raleigh Ensemble Players’ current production of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: The last time a company achieved this degree of intimacy in a performance space around here, a group called Fallen Rose Theater Company knocked our socks off with its company premiere of Cindy Lou Johnson’s domestic drama, Blessé. In 1994.

When critics only find praise for ostensibly “professional” productions on the region’s major stages, they forget the impact psychological drama can have at point-blank range, when top-rank actors are ably directed. In this gripping version of Paul Zindel’s 1969 script, characters and aesthetics don’t have to be inflated to counter the room’s architecture. The resulting realism in this productiondown to the chill that actually might permeate this family’s clearly substandard housingis all the more compelling when we feel we’re actually situated in the room where it takes place.

Under Jesse Gephart’s direction, Sandi Sullivan gives a career-defining performance as Beatrice, a mother whose emotional instabilities threaten her daughters’ well-being. Lori Scarborough Ingle convinces as the ruthless Ruth, a teenager who has internalized her mother’s vanity. But Whitney Griffin wrings our hearts as the timid Tillie, whose first attempts at self-expression as a budding science geek may yet be crushed by forces at home.

Sullivan’s character throws words as if they were knives at all sources of displeasure, in a work that captures the psychology of abuse and then places us uncomfortably close to the line of fire. Highly recommended.