These Shining Lives chronicles the real-life tragedies of women workers who painted watch dials with radium
A doomed radium dial painter breaks out of character to give away the theme of Melanie Marnich’s These Shining Lives in the opening lines: “This isn’t a fairy tale, though it starts like one. It’s not a tragedy, though it ends like one.” The playwright does well to disarm our preconceptions. Given that industrial indifference or ignorance of how workers were once treated is central to this drama, the current Boot and Buskin Theater Group effort at Le Moyne College, we might have some strong emotions, and hardly expect a fairy tale. But as director William Morris says in his curtain speech, there is much to celebrate in these lives.
Morris, recently retired from Le Moyne, describes himself as a “guest director” at the Coyne Center for the Performing Arts, where he long ran the show but in fact had not directed a production in a batch of years. For three decades at Le Moyne as well as the former Contemporary Theatre of Syracuse, Morris developed a golden reputation for championing hard-hitting dramas, like the anti-war Billy Bishop Goes to War, and for his nurturing of young talent. His grateful alumni have gone on to Broadway and Hollywood and populate every community theater company in town.
Morris always had a taste for lesser-known vehicles. These Shining Lives opened in Baltimore in 2008 and has appeared at only a handful of venues since. Playwright Marnich has collected a shelf full of awards and is also the wife of Lee Blessing, author of A Walk in the Woods and Chesapeake, both of which have appeared at Syracuse Stage.
The episode at the center of the action is still widely known and is explained in the program. From the 1920s and into the 1930s the Radium Dial Company of Illinois hired women, not men, to paint the faces and dials of their glow-in-the-dark watches. The procedure had the women wet the tips of their brushes in their mouths, dip them in radium, and apply. In the earlier 20th century radium was looked upon as a wonder element loaded with healthful properties. Instead, of course, it is a hideous carcinogen, as the women discover when they look at their bodies, with hands glowing in the dark. The company viewed such an analysis as the product of environmental wackos and fought the women with powerhouse legal resources, taking nine steps to reach the Supreme Court.
If this was all there was to the story, it would have made a tub-thumping piece of Nader-esque agitprop, and such a drama could have been thrilling and consciousness-raising. Only that’s not what Marnich has in mind, as signaled with that line about fairy tales and the pun buried in its title about “shining lives.” Marnich is also a female writer with a sensibility closer to Joyce Carol Oates than to Clifford Odets.
Catherine Donohue (Talia Hollander) is a working-class young married when she is hired by Radium Dial in 1922. She dresses well, with a sense of style, and speaks refined, grammatical English. We learn later that she began work at age 19 with two small children at home, their status being an issue never addressed. She’s tickled to earn a wage of $8 a week, an important supplement to the income of her welder husband, Tom (Mike Chiappone). As Tom climbs the exposed girders of skyscrapers under construction, his work appears to be the more dangerous. Something has liberated him, perhaps being a veteran of World War I. Tom sees her entering the labor force as making her somehow sexier.
Catherine finds entering the workplace to be liberating, despite the intrusive nosiness of straw boss Mr. Reed (Devon Barrett). She bonds quickly with her chummy if one-dimensional co-workers: the brassy Charlotte (Jade Taggart), bad-joke cracking Pearl (Lauren Slawson) and the prudish, judgmental Frances (Jessie Gherardi). Eight bucks a week begins to sound liberating, equated with women gaining the vote and being able to smoke. Sisterhood quickly becomes powerful, and the four of them picnic by themselves on the sandy shores of Lake Michigan. This is like a scene from Studs Terkel’s Working and it’s the peak of the fairy tale part of story.
Far from being recruits for organized labor, the women never complain. They see no contradiction to being called by their first names when management is always male and “Mr. So-and-So.” They respond cheerfully to company speedups on the production line and drive themselves to meet numerical goals, earning about eight cents a watch.
It’s this harmonious mindset that thrusts them into denial about what is happening to their bodies. A letter from the company reassures the women they are dealing with “pure radium only.”
Even Catherine, who is about to become a spokeswoman, at first reluctantly, hates to be seen as a whiner and complainer. Husband Tom thinks nothing is amiss. But having one’s body fall apart focuses attention.
The company doctor (Christian Cobb) prescribes aspirin, but Catherine eventually finds straight-talking Dr. Dalitsch (James Barcomb), who confirms everyone’s worst fears. His word is not enough to convince lawyers that Catherine has a case until she connects with Leonard Grossman (Christian Cobb, again), who admits to a desire to embarrass the industry.
Although Talia Hollander’s Catherine does not visibly age before our eyes, time is passing, so her case begins after the 1929 crash and then proceeds through the courts during the 1930s. This is also when things get really ugly. With jobs so scarce, sentiment runs against Catherine and the other women. The local newspaper, not named as the Tribune but unmistakably channeling the anti-labor sentiments then found there, castigates the plaintiffs as ingrates seeking only attention and the filthy lucre of a settlement. Catherine lives long enough to see the case progress through eight courts, finally reaching the Supreme Court in 1938. By then she weighs 68 pounds.
Despite the communality of theme with movies like Silkwood and Erin Brockovich, These Shining Lives shares little with them. The confrontation with management, low-keyed, comes from husband Tom Donohue. What we have instead is a fabulous role for a student actor, a woman of all seasons and moods, who carries much of the narration as well as the downward spin of pain and suffering. The role of Catherine is a triumph for young actress Hollander.
Veteran director Morris is in top form, assuring nuance and clarity with thinly written roles like Mike Chiappone’s Tom and Jade Taggart’s Charlotte. Morris’ longtime collaborator, designer Karel Blakeley, has buried subtle signs and meaning in a set that’s anything but bare. Meggan Camp’s expressive costumes suffer occasional anachronisms, however.
The poisoning of the Radium Dial Company workers took place before the advent of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), much loathed by The Wall Street Journal as a “job killer.” What we had before OSHA were conditions that killed workers.
This production runs through Saturday, Feb. 25. See Times Table for information.