By Lonnie “The Theatre Lady” Jantsch
This powerful production is based on a true story about four young girls who work at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois in the 1920’s. It highlights the dangers that exist in the workplace as well as the company’s total lack of concern for their employee’s health. The company encourages the women to use their tongues to make a fine point on the paint brushes that are dipped in the radium used to paint the glow in the dark numbers on the watch dials. They lie to the women, telling them that radium is beneficial to their health and that it cures a variety of ailments. This leads to a lawsuit when the women become seriously ill from the radiation. However, this is more than a Norma Ray type story. It’s a story about deep friendship, resilience and courage.
The upbeat beginning shows the excitement of Catherine Donahue (Samantha Hawk) as she is hired to work painting numbers on watch dials. It is a novel concept for women to work outside the home at that time, and Catherine is thrilled to be a modern woman. A very touching scene when her husband Tom, sweetly tells Catherine “a story”–(the story of how they met), shows their deep connection. This scene showcases the wonderful chemistry between the two actors and convincingly conveys their strong love for each other. Their body language is believably warm, intimate and loving. (Kudos to the director, Barbara Burgess-Lefebvre.)
Michael Church plays his role as loving husband with great sensitivity and charm, even as he embraces the human flaws in his character.
Samantha Hawk shines (sorry, couldn’t resist) in her role. She expresses many deep emotions — all of which seem authentic. Hers is a strong performance that endears her to the audience. She brought tears to my eyes.
At her workplace, Catherine meets some funny, idiosyncratic women with whom she develops a close friendship. Charlotte Purcell (Danette Pemberton), is a tough talking, no nonsense person. Although she’s hard and rough, she nuances her character with such humanity that the audience has no choice—they have to like her.
Pearl Payne (Kodie Warnell) is the joker of the group. She tells real groaners with such over the top enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to laugh. (And, yes, sometimes groan,) I enjoyed watching her hamming it up. She deserves a Hamcademy Award! So entertaining.
Shout out to the costume designer, Annabel Lorence for the period costumes that pay attention to the little details–shoes, hairstyles, hem length on dresses, and such.
Hope Debelius’s lighting design is eerily effective–especially in the sobering last scene.
This story is not a fairy tale. It doesn’t have a happy ending. On a positive note, OSHA was formed as a result of the court case that Catherine Donahue filed, and won, after seven appeals. This is an impactful, poignant, well acted, riveting production that tells a compelling story of a century old event. I’m so glad that I saw it.
“These Shining Lives” runs through August 12 at South Park Theatre. For more information and tickets, click here.