The final show in the Women's Theatre Festival 2018 is These Shining Lives, a one-act play by Melanie Marnich. It is about the true story of a company in Chicago during the 1920s-30s and the fact that they subjected dozens of women to lethal doses of radium during their employment. The show runs just about an hour and three-quarters without intermission.
Radium is an element that is fatal to humans, if subjected to it for long enough, or if it is ingested. In the case of "The Radium Girls," both situations were par for the course. Radium was used in a powdered form to irradiate watch faces and hands so that they would glow in the dark. The Radium Girls were hired to do the painting of these items, using small artists' brushes, which they were told to lick in order to bring the brush to a point. The Radium Dial Company, a subsidiary of Westclox Corporation, knew the powder to be toxic, but never bothered to tell the girls they hired that it was. This was proven in the landmark case brought against the Radium Dial Company by an ex-employee named Catherine W. Donahue. The reason Catherine was an ex-employee is that the company fired her, once she got sick, for missing too many days of work! Historically, Catherine won her suit – seven times! Radium Dial took the case all the way to the Supreme Court and still lost; Catherine was awarded $5,000 in damages. It is a sure bet that the company paid far more in attorneys' fees than they ever would have in damages. But the case was a landmark that paved the way for the right of employees to sue their employers if their health is adversely effected by their employment. It is the case that would later be used as a basis for the massive sue-the-tobacco-company spate of cases, once it was proven that tobacco smoke is a carcinogen.
Jorie Slodki directs the show, which incorporates four actresses as the Girls and two men to play the male roles. Catherine, the main character, is portrayed by Lydia Nethercutt. Tom, her husband, is performed by Nick Iammateo. The other girls are Charlotte (Maggie Lea), who is compared to Mae West and is tough-as-nails; Frances (Candace Hescock), the conscience of the quartet; and Pearl, who tells bad jokes. The four become fast friends during their employment; it is this bond that makes them strong enough to play David to Westclox's Goliath. Rounding out the cast is Ryan Madanick, who plays Mr. Reed, the quartet's immediate supervisor.
It is not noted exactly how close to actual fact the play is, but the text indicates it's pretty close. Katie, which is Tom's nickname for Catherine and what all the girls call her, feels lucky to have gotten a gig at Radium because it is full-time and pays eight cents per watch. Since it was possible to paint upwards of 100 watches in a day, it was possible to bring home $8/day or more, which in the 1920s was fabulous! This was considered a cushy, well-paying job, and every woman who got one was on cloud nine. Tom, who works as a high-rise steel-welder, is not the happiest of men when his wife, and mother to their twins, takes a full-time job, but the pay and the boost it gives his wife change his mind. Still, when Katie returns from work after her first day, she glows in the dark, which only bodes terribly for all concerned.
The show is well acted, especially by the Girls, and most particularly by Nethercutt. The actress effectively brought her character from being a young, starry-eyed and likable new employee, through the bonding process with her fellow employees, and finally through the many stages of illness inflicted upon her by the Barium Company. Katie's diagnosis is necrosis of the jaw, degeneration of her legs, and barium poisoning. By the time she testifies to the Supreme Court, she weighs 71 pounds. She passed away a mere twelve days after winning her case. At her death, she weighed 65 pounds.
The play lagged badly about halfway through, which I consider to be more a problem of the play than the production. The text started to get repetitive at that point. But that soon passed, because things started to heat up at work. Madanick played the company doctor, who told every single woman that they were fine, to take a couple of aspirin, and not to worry. But once the women began seeing their own doctors, they were informed, in no uncertain terms, that barium poisoning is irreversible, incurable, and terminal. By this time, Katie was one of the worst cases, so it was she who must face Westclox in court.
This is an exceptionally well-done production. It handles a terrible, true story with frankness and not a small amount of humor. The quartet represented the entirety of the employees well, and the camaraderie was infectious. And Nethercutt was stellar; it was she who would make or break this show, and she made it very powerful, indeed.
These Shining Lives is one of two concurrent final productions of the 2018 Women's Theatre Festival. It and Eclipsed, which is running simultaneously in Durham (reviewed here), close on August 5. For this show's dates and times, please see the sidebar.