Music by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert
Directed by Jessica Thebus
Based on the Play These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich
Produced by Northlight Theatre, Skokie
New Musical is Radium-Yum-Yum-Yum-Yum
Have you ever had a job that made you want to drink paint? The women at the Radium Dial factory in Ottawa, Illinois were instructed to do so by their managers. A company in the 1920s and 30s which sold glow-in-the-dark watch faces, Radium Dial used actual radium powder in its paint, which they reassured their workers and the public was not only safe, it was healthy. Since painting numbers on watch faces requires extremely fine brush points, the workers were told to wet and press the bristles in their mouths, dip them into the paint, and repeat for each number. The story had already been dramatized at Northlight by Melanie Marnich as part of their new plays initiative, but now, Northlight is debuting the musical version. Since we are told the entire history in the program note, the point of the play is not to learn what happened, but to create a certain atmosphere of pensiveness and loss. Andrew Pluess and Amanda Dehnert’s music does that admirably, showing us the everyday courage of those who struggled against injustice.
It was 1922 when Catherine Donohue (Johanna McKenzie Miller) was a very young mother, and started working for Radium Dial. Her husband, Tom (Alex Goodrich) wasn’t happy about her having a job, seeing it as indicating he had failed in his role as a provider, but he grudgingly accepted out of respect for her choice. On her first day, Catherine met three other factory women: bad-joke cracking Pearl (Tiffany Topol), demure Catholic Frances (Jess Godwin), and brash and highly competitive Charlotte (Bri Sudia). Though intimidated by Charlotte at first, Catherine was also motivated to do her best, and became the second most prolific painter in the factory.
As the years went by, Catherine enjoyed her job, and the friends and income that came with it. She and Tom had some arguments about how to handle work/family balance and had to negotiate 1920s gender roles, but they handled themselves like mature adults, and his parenting became more intimate. In 1925, the company tested all the workers for something, but did not share with them the results, and reassured them radium was healthy. But by 1929, Catherine and her friends were all in constant pain, and glowed in the dark like their paint. In 1931, she was fired, and Charlotte suggested a lawsuit, but for personal reasons, needed someone else to be the main plaintiff, and Catherine volunteered.
The final scenes of the musical involve An Enemy of the People-type conflict, but what makes it especially hurtful is that we were shown the women genuinely took pride in their work, and the degree of independence they gained. Catherine even gave Tom one of the watches she painted as a gift. Pluess and Denhart’s score contains moments of great anger, but for the most part, is alternatingly mournful or made up of sarcastic, funny jingles. It is performed by a pianist, conductor Chuck Larking, and the actors other than Catherine step in to play string instruments, and the like, creating a chamber-musical sound appropriate to the time period.
The actors all give strong performances, though due to the length of the play, number of characters, and amount of time being covered, we don’t learn much more about most of the characters than how they’re originally introduced. McKenzie Miller’s Catherine is an inspiring protagonist who still seems like an ordinary, somewhat immature young person, only maybe a little calmer (though later on, that could just be exhaustion from cancer). Sudia makes hooch-sneaking Charlotte instantly recognizable as the driving force in a group of friends, and the kind of early-adapter who made mainstream the attitudes formerly found only among women on the margin of society. Goodrich’s Tom was raised in accordance with his time, but is no buffoon, and his and Catherine’s marriage is clearly founded on deep love. The other men, Erik Hellman and Matt Mueller, each play two roles, one completely good and the other evil, and Goodwin and Topol make the most of their supporting roles as kindly friends.
Director Jessica Thebus gave this musical an aura of ritual. It begins and ends with candlelight, and the soft music is accompanied by Stephan Mazurek’s projections, which borrow a theme of time and eternity from the clock faces the workers died producing. Catherine even has a song pointing out the irony. The singing is all lovely, and though sad, is warm, and Sudia’s is particularly funny. Several scenes take place in near-darkness, except for lighting by JR Lederle, which imitates the radioactive glow. The program note points out how worker safety laws were changed in part due to the real Catherine Donohue’s court actions, granting the factory women a posthumous victory. This production is therefore a kind of memorial tribute, and the new music supports that purpose quite well. These women’s story is outrageous, but Shining Lives is an affirmation of human dignity.
Reviewed May 16, 2015
This show has been Jeff recommended
For more information, see Shining Lives: A Musical’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie. Tickets are $25-78; to order, call 847-673-6300 or visit northlight.org. Performances run through June 14 and are June 9 at 7:30 pm, Wednesdays at 1:00 pm (except May 27) and 7:30 pm (except June 3), Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm and 7:00 pm (except May 24 and June 14). Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.