Director Jackob Hofmann has kismet to thank for being chosen to put on the Wilton Playshop's upcoming run of "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds."
Though he knows most won't believe it, Hofmann was perusing bookshelves at the library for inspiration when it literally jumped out at him. According to his account, "Gamma Rays" fell off the stacks and landed at his feet and, in that instant, he knew it was a good choice.
"It's a play I've seen on resumes as a director and when I read it, it kind of haunted me," Hofmann said Wednesday during a break in the play's first dress rehearsal. "I think it's so well written, so lyrical, very much in the style of Tennessee Williams...it is beguiling and strange, but beautiful and about finding beauty within the chaos."
Though the Pulitzer-winning play was originally written in 1964 by playwright and science teacher Paul Zindel, it is thematically timeless, particularly amid the struggles many are currently facing in a world of ailing economies and lives fragmented by the frenetic pace of technology and the concurrent decline of formal language. Hofmann hopes audiences can appreciate the work's lyricism as he does, but admits that its universality is really what makes it so poignant.
"If you trust the language, the language will inspire you." he said of his directorial approach. "It speaks to different people differently."
To wit: Hofmann had around 30 actresses audition for the work's five roles and each seemed to find and bring varying conceptions of the readings to life; some were melancholic, some were angry, some were deadpan. But Hofmann found his star, Nancy Sinacori, knowing almost immediately that she would be perfect for the character of Beatrice, a down-on-her-luck, manic mother struggling to reconcile her own failed dreams with her two young daughters' blossoming talents.
"My process is that they may do a great monologue but I need to find out if they're directable," he said of the actresses' auditions. "You have to work to their strengths and find someone who can respond to your vision..I ask myself: how can I make the space and the actor work for me instead of trying to make them into something they're not...and I'm getting a lot of what I preconceived and a lot of surprises, and I think that's the best of both worlds."
In Wednesday's rehearsal, Sinacori showed an astounding emotional range, conjuring hilarity, sorrow, resentment, and tenderness seamlessly in her depiction of Beatrice without any of it seeming forced. Her mania, like a star gone supernova, shines brightly on stage, affecting the other characters and the audience alike.
Playshop President Zelie Pforzheimer spoke of Sinacori's performance and the play, at large, thus:
"Nancy is just unbelievably good and she just bring so many nuances to this character...as it is, you are able to understand her. Because she's such a good actress, though you may be tempted to hate her, you can also empathize with her. There are so many powerful moments [in the play] that in the hands of a lesser director or a lesser actor just could not occur."
The play's title hints at what audiences should expect: an intricately woven, eloquent collage of monologue and dialogue that may seem obtuse until it blooms in its enactment. Without giving too much away, Beatrice's radiating emotions conjure deep, visceral character flaws in her two daughters, played brilliantly by Allison Benkois (Tillie) and Sophie Campbell Habetz (Ruth). As Tillie says toward the end, the work is much about the "strange effects radiation can produce if not handled properly."
Beatrice's delusions of grandeur, and the crazy outbursts they elicit, have caused Ruth to grow up too fast, as she is fascinated with bright red lipstick, drinking and scratching her mother's back in exchange for cigarettes, leading her to be much too old and world-weary for her age. Tillie's character, meanwhile, is juxtaposed against Ruth's overt sexuality and garrulousness by being quiet and introverted, making sense of the chaos in her life by methodically organizing their house and doting on her science project: growing Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds with varying degrees of radiation exposure.
The plot and the subtle metaphors and meaning implied by the title and touched on in Tillie's monologues ultimately coalesce into a stunning yet true-to-life show that is bound to move audiences willing to give themselves over to its impressive acting and tacit implications.
"I hope the audience will encounter the language first and hopefully they bring their minds to be in a place to say: 'This is what language is, this is what theater can be,'" Hofmann said. "I'm hoping it stirs people up a bit and can be a conversation starter...certainly we can all see ourselves in these characters and maybe we don't go as far as Beatrice does, but hopefully it helps us examine ourselves. I think that's what good theater does-it provokes. It has you asking questions of yourself and the world around you."
Certainly this is good theater, but not just for the audience. Working in such an intimate environment with such a small cast, both Hofmann and the actresses have reaped the rewards. Since the play was cast in late November and the four-times-a-week rehearsals began in earnest on Jan. 2, they have all benefited from the lack of distractions (which are characteristic of larger, lighter-hearted performances) and grown and flourished in their crafts.
"We're very cognizant of our space here and those of us that have worked here for a while understand its beauty and its limitations," said Playshop board member Janice Dehn. "When he came and saw the space, he knew it would work...Jackob knew exactly why this play spoke to him and was able to present his vision and his concept for bringing it to life...and the feedback in a nurturing environment has made it great for him and the actresses."
The show begins its run at the Playshop tonight, Friday, Jan. 22 at 8 p.m. and runs for two weeks with additional performances on Saturday, Jan. 23 at 8 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 24, at 2 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 28, at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, Jan. 30, 8 p.m. Tickets range from $20 for adults to $15 for students and seniors. Tickets can be reserved by calling (203) 762-7629 or visiting the Playshop's web site.