The North Carolina Women’s Theatre Festival’s production of These Shining Lives, written by Melanie Marnich and directed by Jorie Slodki, exemplifies this year’s theme, which is “Women Are Heroes.” Indeed, they are. Even back in the 1920s, when a small group of women, gravely ill from the effects of hazardous working conditions, decided to fight back against their employer. In doing so, they changed the law and the occupational safety standards for the whole country.
Here’s some background: In the early 1900s, the radioactive element radium was discovered by Marie Curie; and given its magical glow and the energy that it produced, it was touted as a cure for all sorts of diseases. Although very little was known about the element at that time, radium was all the rage and was added to cosmetics, hair products, and even energy tablets and drinks — foods that ultimately caused your jaw to drop off, but that was to come later. Radium was like cigarettes — seen as “healthy”, until it was discovered that it was not.
In 1920, enter the Radium Dial Company, which used a paint laced with radium dust to make the numbers on its watch dials glow in the dark. At a time when jobs were scarce and food-lines long, Radium Dial offered women high salaries to paint their watch dials; and women started working outside of the home for the first time. To be chosen for one of their positions was seen as quite a stroke of luck indeed.
The Radium Girls, as they came to be called, would mix radium dust into small batches of paint. Then, to get the paintbrushes to a point small enough paint the tiny numbers on the watches, these ladies would put the small paintbrushes in their mouths, make the brush tip into a point, dip the brush into the radium paint, gingerly brush on the numbers, and repeat. Lick, dip, and paint. Lick, dip, and paint — in essence, dosing themselves with radioactivity with each lick. At the end of their shift, the ladies would shimmer from the dust on their clothes, on their hands, and in their hair.
Their supervisors told them that the radium was harmless, even when they started to suspect that it was not. So, when these formerly healthy young women started falling ill of a mysterious illness that affected their bones, their teeth, and their legs, the Radium Dial Company quickly terminated them to bring in a fresh new batch of workers.
The play swirls around Catherine (Lydia Nethercutt), a doe-eyed 20 year old with two kids and a doting husband Tom (Nick Iammatteo). Tom is a loving but underemployed laborer who is at first resistant of his wife taking a job, but who ultimately comes around. Catherine shows us the joy of having some independence, of making her own money, and of spending time with her new women friends from the factory — things not known to women in the 1920s. Frances (Candace Hescock) and Pearl (Dannibeth Farnum) are all friendly, but it is the stubborn and blunt Charlotte (Maggie Lea) and her slowly developing friendship with Catherine that warmed the stage. Lea really made Charlotte come to life effortlessly.
When Catherine starts to feel sick, she goes to the company doctor, who provides an aspirin and who intimates that only healthy girls get to keep their jobs, thus forcing silence upon them for fear of being terminated. Did the doctors know about the health effects of radium? Were they only concerned with the profits? Did Catherine’s bosses know? Once Catherine gets her pink slip, she decides to sue to force a change.
From the Department of Picky-Picky: With Karyn Leigh Raynor’s lighting and Mac McCord’s set, the action easily moves from Catherine and Tom’s simple breakfast table to the factory floor and back. However, we felt that the large projector screen at the back of the stage could have been used to greater effect during the show to give the audience a sense of time and place.
In addition, while we loved Mikki Stith’s 1920s costuming, the show was begging for at least one costume change, as the characters were attired in the same complete outfits the entire show. Even a small bit of variety would have helped. A new blouse? A scarf? Different shoes? Or even taking shoes or jacket off? Vintage beachwear at the lake?
Ultimately, however, this is a great show about women who were ahead of their time. It is a story about standing up and doing the right thing. Will the Radium Girls find a doctor to treat them? Will they find a lawyer to take their case? Will the employers pay for their actions?
For these ladies, time was literally running out. But so is yours, as the show ends after next weekend. Go to The ArtsCenter of Carrboro and cheer them on.
SECOND OPINION: July 28th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9068; and July 26th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh BWW Interview with author Kate Moore, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Interview-New-York-Times-Bestselling-Author-Kate-Moore-Talks-The-Radium-Girls-THESE-SHINING-LIVES-and-Radioactive-Legacy-20180726 .
The North Carolina Women’s Theatre Festival presents THESE SHINING LIVES at 4 p.m. July 29, and 8 p.m. Aug. 2-4, and 7 p.m. Aug. 5 at The ArtsCenter of Carrboro, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro, North Carolina 27510.
TICKETS: $17 in advance and $20 at the door, except $10 for students aged 22 and younger.
BOX OFFICE: 800-838-3006 or https://theseshiningliveswtf.brownpapertickets.com/.
INFORMATION: 980-458-2551 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
SHOW: https://www.womenstheatrefestival.com/these-shining-lives and https://www.facebook.com/events/2143460359003192/.
2018 SEASON: https://www.womenstheatrefestival.com/2018-season-program.
PRESENTER: http://www.womenstheatrefestival.com/, https://www.facebook.com/WTFNC/, and https://twitter.com/wtfestivalnc.
VENUE: http://www.artscenterlive.org/, https://www.facebook.com/artscenterlive, and https://twitter.com/ArtsCenterlive.
These Shining Lives (2008 Baltimore and 2009 Chicago drama): https://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=4192 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://newdramatists.org/melanie-marnich/these-shining-lives (New Dramatists play page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/These_Shining_Lives (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Melanie Marnich (playwright and screenwriter): http://newdramatists.org/melanie-marnich (New Dramatists bio), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm3346060/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melanie_Marnich (Wikipedia).
Jorie Slodki (director): https://www.facebook.com/GeoBQn (Facebook page).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.