The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, written by Paul Zindel, is loosely based on the playwright's youth, particularly on his mother.
Marigolds is the story of Tillie (a nickname for Matilda), a young girl whose science teacher awakens her interest in atoms, the beginnings of the universe, and experimentation. Under his supervision, Tillie conducts an experiment measuring the effect of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds.
Meanwhile, Zindel shows us the complications Tillie must cope with in her everyday life. The family is poor, and Tillie's eccentric mother, Beatrice, is constantly concocting impracticable "get-rich-quick" schemes. Tillie's sister, Ruth, is mentally disturbed, and often wakes up in the middle of the night screaming in terror because of bad dreams.
Nanny, one of Beatrice's schemes, lives with Tillie's family. She is an elderly "human vegetable" whom Beatrice has agreed to take care of (for a price, of course). In the play, Nanny also serves as a constant reminder to Beatrice of what may happen to her someday if she is left penniless at the mercy of her children in her old age.
The result of Tillie's experiment shows that marigolds exposed to a moderate amount of gamma rays mutate into flowers much larger and more full-blossomed than ordinary marigolds. However, marigolds exposed to an excessive concentration of rays become dwarfed, and a concentration that is too great will kill the marigolds.
This is obviously a metaphor for Tillie's life. Despite her less-than-idyllic surroundings, Tillie has obviously grown into an extraordinary young woman. However, if she continues in the same company for much longer, she, like her marigolds, will become "dwarfed" or even die.
Naturalistic, poignant, strongly reminiscent of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, Marigolds explores themes of parent/child relationships, despair, and strength despite circumstances.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds received its first production in 1965. It won the Pulitzer Prize when it was first published in book form in 1971.
Other works by Paul Zindel:
My Darling, My Hamburger
The Pigman and Me
The Legacy of the Pigman
The Doom Stone
Pardon Me, You're Stepping on my Eyeball
...and many more.