Beautifully staged, exquisitely acted, and so very human, “Radium Girls” is set from 1918-1928, but have a powerful and relevant message for today—that fighting against inequality never stops. It presents a case little-known today about the suit female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with self-luminous paint. The painting was actually done by women at three different sites in North America: a United States Radium factory in Orange, New Jersey, a facility at Ottawa, Illinois, and a third in Waterbury, Connecticut.“
“Beautifully staged, exquisitely acted, and so very human…”
The workers had been told the paint was harmless. It was new! Scientific! Marie Curie (who briefly makes an appearance in the play) was finding cures for cancer with it! The women were instructed to point their brushes on their lips in order to give them a fine point, as using rags or a water rinse to point the brushes was considered more wasteful. They also had quotas to meet; a certain number of watch dials had to be painted every day, so the girls could, in many cases, earn more money than their fathers. It was toward the end of WWI and the start of the Jazz Age and these young women, many of whom left school at age 15-16 in order to contribute to the family coffers, had a taste of independence and money they were able to spend on leisure activities. Unfortunately, they paid a high price for their new-found freedoms.
“Radium Girls” follows several of the women in the New Jersey factory who challenged the two-year statute of limitations in order to sue their employees for their occupational disease. Our story begins with Grace Fryer, 15-years-old, and giddy with the delight of earning so much money to both help her family and to go out dancing with her girlfriends. It follows her and her friends as they realize something is wrong, and as they become more disfigured and eventually wheelchair-bound, and as they start dying. In an eerie echo of today, many of their families faced financial ruin and bankruptcy and foreclosure over their daughters’ medical bills; at the time, few had health insurance and most insurance companies did not want to offer it. There was an insurance called “sickness” insurance, which is closer to what we think of as disability—to replace lost wages.
The company the girls work for, U.S. Radium Corporation, denies there is any wrong-doing; they base many of their arguments on radium’s benefits and accuse the girls of poisoning themselves (sometimes they used to joke around and paint some iridescent paint on their teeth or lips or cheeks). Arthur Roeder is not an ogre—he believed his experts but when the scope starts coming out, his first instinct is to deny and deflect and to protect the company’s, and his, fortunes. The girls’ families and friends are also afraid of losing what little they have if they go up against a big company with all its legal resources.
This production places a human face on corporate malfeasance; even if the people in the company originally believed the substance to be safe, once the danger was known it was not disseminated. Profits came first. Through the efforts of these workers, who in the end really had nothing to lose, standards and regulations for food and scientific research took a big leap forward.
The cast is uniformly excellent in this production. With the exception of Bette Cassatt (who solely plays Grace Fryer) and Ron Ward (Arthur Roeder), the remaining seven members all play multiple roles. Clever staging in a space bisected by a post in the middle helped the show run smoothly. Surasree Das, Jack Evans, Matt Harris, Julie Herber, Molly Parchment, J.D. Sivert and Dena Transeau transform into each character with just a switch of a hat or pinny or jacket and eloquent mannerisms.
Taking advantage of the post, the set was transformed by using iron poles to move different “rooms” on wheels behind and around the post. Doug Grove is the scenic designer and he uses every foot of space to maximum advantage. Sparing use of projections (Tom Majarov is the sound and projection designer), many of which were of the historical characters, brought a poignancy and immediacy to the show.
The play was directed with finesse by Gerard Stropnicky. He uses a deft touch to keep things moving briskly without losing any of the feeling.
This is a beautifully mounted show that has relevance to today’s issues with safety and oversight. It is thoughtful without being preachy, and you ache for these young lives that didn’t want to be martyrs but ended up having a far bigger impact than they might have had otherwise. You mourn the loss and thank these women for not backing down.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Show Information: Radium Girls’ runs from February 15 – March 10, 2019, at Maryland Ensemble Theatre (MET), Frederick, Maryland. For more information, please click here.