Legend has it that in the process of filming the 1972 movie adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, lead actress Joanne Woodward became so engrossed in her sordid part that it strained her relationships off set. Her character was Beatrice Hunsdorfer, a racist, misanthropic, self-loathing, self-absorbed, mentally imbalanced single mother of two girls in the early '60s. Blabbering incessantly about the burdens of her world, she lived a life of decidedly unquiet desperation — like one of Tennessee Williams' misguided matrons, only without the air of tattered glamour.
For an actress to inhabit the character so invisibly, as Woodward did, it's no surprise the role affected her negatively. Her husband, Paul Newman, directed the movie, and their daughter, Nell Potts, played one of Woodward's kids in the film. The role took her to dark places with her family, and she was happy when the shoot ended.
In Palm Beach Dramaworks' current revival of this awkwardly titled classic, lead actress Laura Turnbull finds herself in a similar situation, portraying Beatrice alongside her real-life daughter, Arielle Hoffman. This time, there's never a sense that the role has gotten under Turnbull's skin, because she seems to be enjoying it too much. Beatrice is supposed to be a feeble pillar of world-weary bitterness, a deadened jalopy whose misery is evident in every scornful retort. For an actress who has the reputation of slipping into a character as effortlessly as a favorite nightgown, Turnbull's Beatrice only captures this essence sporadically. Her laugh lines — she defames her daughter's Jewish teacher by calling him a "Hebrew hermaphrodite" — sound like over-rehearsed laugh lines, effective by intent rather than by incident. The mechanism of acting is ever-present and, as a result, Beatrice never feels like a lived-in, worn-in being.
It's a self-consciously bravura performance, played with a sense of self-satisfaction that doesn't suit Beatrice and, by extension, the play, because Beatrice is the play. Prone to rambling, cold-hearted soliloquies, her lines dwarf those of the other characters. These include her youngest tyke, Matilda (Hoffman), who buries herself in a science experiment to escape the prison of her home; her older daughter Ruth (Skye Coyne), an epilepsy-suffering teenager who is quickly growing into her mother; and Nanny (Harriet Oser), an infirm, elderly woman the family is lodging for a pittance. In her one-way conversations with the silent Nanny, Turnbull is at her best, projecting genuine contempt and cyanide sarcasm onto deaf ears.
She also finds her footing in the second act, when her character finally unravels: While Matilda is at school competing for the top prize at its science fair for her radium-laced marigolds, Beatrice is at home, upending the detritus of domestic neglect. She heedlessly swipes the clutter off tables, moves furniture around with manic purpose, and rifles through her cupboards for tea sets and tablecloths to fulfill an impossible pipe dream of turning her living room into a successful teashop. The metaphor "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" was created for implosions like this.
By the time The Effect of Gamma Rays winds toward its tragic end, director William Hayes has smoothed over its bumpy beginnings. All the cogs run smoothly toward a downer of a denouement that finds Coyne, as Ruth, expressing hurt and rage like a veteran of the stage, her cheeks flush with red. She'll have a nice future in a South Florida theater scene scant on capable teen actors.
Michael Amico's two-story, three-dimensional set design is a marvel of shabby realism; in Dramaworks' fabulous new home on Clematis Street, anything less than spectacular would be a disappointment. In parts, The Effect of Gamma Rays is dazzling. The failure of the show as a whole rests, unfortunately, with Turnbull, who brings the wrong tone to the right part, like a slightly defective turntable wobbling just off-pitch.