Tillie examined her flowers as her mother talked on the phone with her science teacher.
“I’m sure with all those modern techniques you must have, you can bring her out,” her mother said. “I’ve tried just everything, but she isn’t a pretty girl — I mean, let’s be frank about it, she’s going to have her problems.”
The high school freshman peered from her mother back to her science project, three pots of marigolds that are subjected to various levels of radiation.
The scene begins “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” which opens Friday at Stage III Community Theatre. Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer Prize-wining script for best drama tells the story of Tillie, who’s treated poorly by her mother and bullied by her sister but who persists in pursuing her dreams and love of science.
The production’s director, Aj Guillen, first saw the play while earning his theater degree at New Mexico State University. It lasts a little over an hour, but its impact continues long after, he said.
“I was in tears,” he said. “You come in and it changes your life quick, fast, in a hurry — and stays with you for as long as you’re able to remember.”
Looking up statistics about the high rates of bullying and suicide in Wyoming inspired Guillen to direct the play, he said. He believes theater should be more than entertainment.
“I wanted to make people feel something that makes them think,” he said. “This play deals with bullying both inside and outside of the home. And it shows people that not everything that everyone says is the truth, so you create your own happiness.”
Tillie is a shy, studious girl who conducts a science experiment with three pots of marigolds grown from seeds exposed to three levels of radiation. One plant dies, one doesn’t thrive, and one grows beautiful blooms – proving that “something beautiful and full of promise can emerge from even the most barren, afflicted soil,” according to a description of the play.
“It really shows the tenacity of a child and the brilliance of a child being able to learn from a traumatizing experience and being able to grow from it,” Guillen said.
Sami Saunders, a sixth-grade student and Stage III veteran, was cast to portray Tillie. The character has no choice but to live through the abuse from her mother, Beatrice, Sami said.
“She talks in a really stern voice to Tillie, and she gets really mad at Tillie,” Sami added. “I have a feeling she hits her sometimes, because when Beatrice gets mad at her, she backs up out of the way.”
Tillie turns to her various science projects, including one involving a rabbit, which is represented by a real bunny in the show.
Julia Conte, a high school junior, portrays Tillie’s older sister Ruth, a popular and pretty but high-strung cheerleader the actor described as “the girl who bullied you in high school.”
She hopes the show inspires people to talk about any abuse or bullying they may experience or see, she said.
“I’m so honored just to be able to be in this because it’s such a moving show,” Conte said. “When I first read it, I started crying.”
Ruth in the first scene reports with delight to her mother that other kids laughed at Tillie while she presented a science demonstration at school.
Tricia Lovelace knew she wanted the part of Beatrice as soon as she read the script, because she’s a challenging character to understand and portray. It’s the most difficult role she’s acted, she said.
Beatrice bitterly resents the children she’s raising alone and the way her life turned out, Lovelace said. She lives vicariously through Ruth, on whom she bestows what affection she’s capable of. There’s none left for Tillie, until the younger girl gains recognition for her scientific gifts. But Beatrice is always motivated by how she appears to others and her desire for admiration, Lovelace said.
That trait is apparent when Beatrice scolds Tillie for not dressing better.
“When they laugh at you, they’re laughing at me,” she says in the play.
Throughout the play, the daughters begin to learn about Beatrice’s own experiences in her high school years. Applause and kudos from the audience are great, Lovelace said, though that’s not what Lovelace seeks from this role.
“I think bigger than that is having an audience member say nothing, because they have no words — they have been affected so profoundly that they’re just at a loss,” she said. “And I want the audience to come away feeling that, despite the fact that Beatrice is so awful … that they saw something really beautiful.”