Colonial Players' current production of Melanie Marnich's "These Shining Lives" tells the story of four young women in the early 1920s and 1930s who seize their chance at the American dream by finding employment at the Westclox Radium Dial Company.
Marnich's poetic rendering of this true story had its world premiere six years ago at Center Stage in Baltimore, where it became a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the Weissberger Award.
The play's opening lines introduce its full dimensions: "This isn't a fairy tale, though it starts like one. It's not a tragedy, though it ends like one. It's something else. We're something else."
As narrator, Catherine Donohue is a happily married mother of two young children, and communicates her joy at newfound empowerment through work: the camaraderie and financial independence that translates into her achieving a fairy-tale existence — at least before its disintegration.
Marnich describes "These Shining Lives" as "a work of creative nonfiction inspired by real people and events."
Radium plants offered good-paying jobs to women who were given pots paint and camel-hair brushes to hand-paint clock and watch faces. These "radium girls" were taught to dip their brushes in the paint and then touch it to their tongues and lips to achieve a fine point — a technique that made the job deadly for some.
Company managers assured the radium girls their glowing hands, teeth and lips were not indicative of health problems. Company physicians ignored problems when conditions worsened to include loosened teeth and bone degeneration (although radium exposure was controlled for company scientists and managers).
Historically, the radium girls waged long, difficult court battles against employers and eventually won court decisions that led to minimal compensation. Factory owners eventually initiated practices to reduce radium exposure and protect workers. The legal settlements won by the radium girls represented a milestone in developing government programs to protect workers.
In his program notes, director of this Colonial Players production, Craig Allen Mummey, reminds us that the play's characters and stories were real. "The spine of the story is factual," he notes.
Mummey also reminds us these characters "illuminate the strength of the human spirit to stick together, to persevere, and to prevail. We tell their story because these women are worth remembering and worth honoring."
Mummey is assisted in creating this honest view by set designer Laurie Nolan, whose minimalist set works to create almost instant scene changes, and by costume designer Beth Terranova, whose designs include a variety of authentic 1930s-era costumes that help define each character.
Mummey has assembled a tight and terrific ensemble of actors. At the head is Sarah Wade who delivers a shining portrayal that is totally believable as the radium girls' leader, Catherine Donahue.
From the moment she begins her opening narration, Wade proves that she has stepped into the major actress category. Throughout her performance, she delivers a compelling portrayal, tracing Catherine's growth from vulnerable wife and mother eager to help her construction worker husband with expenses, to proud worker who earns more pay than she ever expected and gains confidence as one of the quartet of skilled workers forming a bond.
Her role as wife and mother changes as she is more burdened, and Wade's Catherine summons true courage after her friends suffer the effects of radium, persuading her to fight against the company.
Others in the ensemble include Josette Dubois as Frances, a pious woman who rarely displays jealousy or pettiness; and Krissy McGregor as Charlotte, a sharp, ambitious early-career woman who is competitive, honest and delightfully fun-loving as she encourages co-workers to sip from her flask of gin.
Aricia Skidmore-Williams is excellent as good-natured Pearl, always ready with a humorous one-liner and generally lightening up tense situations to provide a needed gentle element.
Of the male roles, only Catherine's construction worker husband Tom Donohue is a major player, compellingly played by Ben Carr. Carr reveals Tom's many facets while conveying love, understanding and respect for his wife.
David Carter plays attorney Leonard Grossman and factory boss Mr. Reed, delivering a major scene in Reed's dramatic confrontation with Tom Donohue. Eric Hufford skillfully plays a trio of doctors.
Colonial Players' production of "These Shining Lives" may anger us at some points, but it is mainly a testimonial to courageous working women who fought for justice from a company that once empowered them.
Performances continue Thursdays through Sundays through May 31. Purchase tickets online at theclonialplaers.org or call the box office at 410-268-7373. Colonial Players is located at 108 East Street, Annapolis.