UW-Green Bay Theatre will present a riveting-true life tale beginning Feb. 28, bringing to life the story of the 1920s “radium girls” and the struggles they faced as dream job turned to nightmare scenario.
These Shining Lives chronicles the story of four real women who fought back against their company when the work they did — after numerous assurances of safety — made them gravely (and in some cases, terminally) ill. The play tells the story not just of their struggle, but of the relationships they formed and the strength they found in fighting back.
“This play, it’s based on a true story in the 1920s and 30s — in the 20s, especially,” said UW-Green Bay Associate Prof. John Mariano, the play’s director. “A lot of women went to work painting clock and watch dial faces with radium-laced paint, because they glowed in the dark.
“And when they first began, they were led to believe that radium was completely harmless. A lot of people believed that. There were people who actually took radium for therapeutic purposes.”
These Shining Lives follows four women who worked at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Ill. For many, it was the chance to make more money than their fathers ever did — for some, more than their husbands. It meant a newfound sense of independence that coincided with social change of the time, said UW-Green Bay senior Chelsea Crevcoure, who plays Charlotte.
“It’s about relationships,” Crevcoure said. “You know, it’s about these four women — they can vote, they can smoke, they can kiss in public, they can do all this stuff. And they finally have all this freedom, and they just make great friendships with each other.”
Yet the freedom the women found at work would come with a cost, Mariano said.
“Over the course of the 20s, especially, it became apparent that the radiation was actually very bad for you — that it could hurt you a lot,” he said. “And these women were particularly susceptible to it because they were exposed every day.
“And the technique for painting the dial faces was to point the paintbrush with your lips, dip it in the paint, paint the numbers, and do that all day, eight hours a day, five days a week or more.”
UW-Green Bay junior Stephanie Frank plays Catherine, the story’s main character.
“So of course they got really, really sick,” Frank said. “And our play is about (four) women who decided, after they got sick, to really fight back against the company, which the town frowned upon. It was just much bigger than any of them anticipated it being.”
Because the play is based on a true story, cast members have done extensive research into the time and their characters, Crevcoure said. It’s been an eye-opening and enjoyable challenge for the small cast.
“You know, it was a big deal for women to be going to court and filing a lawsuit against their company,” Crevcoure said. “So it’s really fun and interesting to put myself into that position — because it’s hard for me to imagine.”
Mariano has fielded inquiries from several fellow faculty members interested in various aspects of the play, historical and scientific among them. And while it’s a serious tale based in reality, These Shining Lives also is an enjoyable, fast-moving and entertaining play that offers broad appeal, he said. It’s a challenge for actors that provides a great show for audiences.
“It’s a play that has a large arc — it starts in 1922 and ends in 1938,” Mariano said. “And over the course of this, they go from being kind of young and naïve and full of exuberance on these new jobs, to literally on death’s door for a couple of them. So it’s a very challenging, I think, emotional arc for all the women, in particular, in the play.”