Melanie Marnich’s docudrama These Shining Lives is meant to be taken both literally and figuratively: Women whose jobs literally cause their bodies to glow from radium poisoning provide shining examples of lives nonetheless well lived.
Based on actual events and people, the play takes place between 1922 and 1938 in Chicago and Ottawa, Ill. Catherine Donohue (the appealing newcomer Brytanie Holbrook, in a raven bob) takes a job at Radium Dial Comapny painting watch faces with a radium compound that makes the numbers glow in the dark.
The bodies of Catherine and her co-workers absorb the radium, resulting in injuries after several years. Meanwhile, the company doctor prescribes aspirin and enemas for them. Catherine eventually brings a lawsuit against the company and thereby suffers the indignities and vicious personal attacks that often befall whistleblowers who dare rage against the machine.
Terry Veal has directed the play at a plodding pace. He’s working with a fairly inexperienced cast, but the production numbs the mind more than it rouses the passion.
Our sympathy for the characters is more academic than authentic. We feel for the women — and more than a thousand worked for Radium Dial — because we know we’re supposed to, not because these characters inspire us.
The staging is partly realistic and partly abstract without being convinc ingly either. One side of the stage is the home of Catherine and her husband, Tom (Justin Haley, sporting a beard that would identify him as a Bolshevik in 1922); the other side is the company workroom, with a low platform in the middle that’s various locations.
Carpenter Square’s storefront theater is a congenial space, but it challenges directors and designers to think creatively. The company’s most successful production artistically was A Steady Rain earlier this year, coincidentally also set in Chicago, which had a completely abstract set and few props.
The acting varies. The work benefits from Holbrook, who does a credible job as Catherine, but it’s a bit much to expect her to shoulder the entire play.
The versatile Kaleb Bruza, a solid young actor, convincingly plays a variety of characters, ranging from the Radium Dial supervisor who lacks the backbone to question company policy, to Catherine’s lawyer, who tells the client that she won’t make much money from her lawsuit. The attorney is right: Catherine doesn’t, considering the ultimate price paid.
The “Radium Girls” changed the way companies must treat their workers. Their story deserves a powerful telling.