In an oft-quoted passage, Tolstoy wrote “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But to write about unhappy families, as so many playwrights have done, is to suggest points of common understanding, whether it’s only to recognize the truly tragic in life or to focus on things that may lead to some form of recovery.

Paul Zindel reportedly based his “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” on his own childhood as well as his years as a teacher. The Mad Horse Theatre production of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play which opened Saturday night confirms that personal element in the work. It also suggests a broader perspective on what sometimes makes family life so strange and toxic. It’s a powerful show that will resonate with many folks.

The 1970 play concerns a single-parent family both financially and emotionally on the ropes. As director Chris Horton writes in his program notes, the play “doesn’t pull any punches,” though it is ultimately sympathetic to even the most unpleasant character.

That character would be the mother, played by Christine Louise Marshall, a once hopeful woman who fate and her own self-destructiveness have brought to a state of alcohol-fueled cynicism. Her two daughters, played by real-life high schoolers Veronica Druchniak and Ruth Gray, cope through combinations of ignoring, playing along and/or working around their mom’s well-worn delusions and destructiveness.

Druchniak’s Tillie has perhaps the best chance of not following her mother’s downward trajectory when she’s recognized for a science project involving marigolds exposed to radiation. Her sister and mom have trouble seeing beyond how this all reflects on themselves. The consequences are dire.

Muriel Kenderdine, Nora Daly and a rabbit named Lyly round out the cast but it is fundamentally the three principals who carry the show. Each gave a fine performance on opening night. The contrast of the sisters in the light of the mother’s “rays” of weirdness and scorn felt real. Yet they also bonded believably. A particularly touching moment had them holding hands in hope/fear of the mother’s next turn.

Marshall was a sad and scary force as her character moved ever closer to an edge of despair. Whether swilling booze or taunting an elderly tenant, she was one of those parents from hell that too many kids have known. Love/hate was a term made for the family dynamic she creates.

There are a couple of laughs but this show is mostly about serious stuff. Not without warmth, it nonetheless describes a very cold and lonely place containing just a few atoms of hope. 

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.