This surreal play puts forth the argument that adolescent curiosity and genius can arise from the most unlikely of places. Beatrice is the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, cynical single mother of Ruth and Matilda. Ruth is thought to be mad because she suffers from convulsions and lies compulsively. Matilda, called Tillie, is obsessed with science and atoms, and the only one of the three who seems to have any common sense. They have made their home in an old vegetable storefront.
Although Tillie loves school, Beatrice often keeps her home to clean up rabbit droppings and tend to the blind and deaf old woman who lives with them for fifty dollars a month. Beatrice threatens to kill Tillie’s pet rabbit in every conversation. Ruth couldn’t care less about school, but Beatrice bribes her with cigarettes and sends her every day. The girls’ teachers frequently call home, and Beatrice acts quite erratically on the phone with them.
Tillie finds something to care about other than her rabbit when she brings home marigold seeds treated with different degrees of radiation. Although Beatrice is furious about Tillie bringing more clutter into the house, Tillie protects her marigolds as fiercely as the rabbit. Ruth comes home from school one afternoon to tell Beatrice that Tillie and her marigolds are finalists in a science fair competition, and Beatrice will appear on stage with Tillie when she presents her findings.
Beatrice acts annoyed, but this is the first thing in her life she ever felt proud of. The night of the science fair arrives, and Beatrice spends hours dressing in feathers.
While Beatrice is outside waiting for the cab, Ruth threatens to tell Beatrice the teachers make fun of her behind her back and call her Betty the Loon. In a hasty exchange, Tillie gives Ruth her rabbit, and Ruth promises not to ruin the night for Beatrice. Ruth is deceptive, though, and tells Beatrice people will be laughing at her while she is holding her new rabbit.
Too afraid to go to the science fair, Beatrice sends Ruth to go with Tillie. While Tillie is winning the science fair, Beatrice is at home drinking and chloroforming the rabbit. Tillie comes home with her trophy, and Beatrice confesses to her that she hates the world. Ruth has a seizure that lasts over a minute.
Voiceovers from Tillie’s presentation are interspersed throughout the play. The marigold seeds subjected to low levels of radiation grew normally. The seeds subjected to medium levels of radiation produced strange mutations in the adult plants like double-headed blooms. The seeds subjected to high levels of radiation either died or grew dwarfed plants. The marigolds serve as a metaphor for the adult Tillie will grow into, and the radiation can be interpreted as family dysfunction.