If ever there were an appropriate time for audiences to appreciate D.W. Gregory’s Radium Girls, it would be now, in the wake of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. After all, both make plain the devastation that comes when corporations wield absolute control over scientific matters they know nothing about. You’d think that since the 1920s, when the Radium Girls story actually took place, we’d have learned our lesson about the dangers of obsessing over wealth and commercializing science, but obviously that isn’t the case.
Gregory’s play tells about the women working for the U.S. Radium Corp. when the radioactive element was believed to be a miracle cure for everything from gout to insanity. U.S. Radium, having secured a military contract to manufacture timepieces with glow-in-the-dark faces for soldiers, employed women to paint the dials with radium-laced paints.
Company head Arthur Roeder (Jeff Chamberlin) and his associates encouraged the women in their factory to use their lips and tongues to shape their brushes into finer points.
“What harm could it do?” these factory workers were told. “Radium is a miracle cure!” According to news reports from the time, the women were led to believe that the paint was harmless and rosy cheeks would be the only side effect.
The play is based around factory workers Grace Fryer (Katty Perrell), Irene (Libby Bakke) and Kathryn (Anna Pidylpchak). It opens on the three gossiping about the recent funeral of a former coworker thought to have had syphilis.
More and more women begin getting ill—teeth falling out, bloody coughs. Grace Fryer, the real-life crusader, begins noticing strange symptoms of her own. Deciding she won’t miss her upcoming wedding or quietly watch her friends die, she seeks the help of consumer activist Miss Wiley (also played by Bakke), who spearheads the women’s effort to retrieve compensation from their employer and bring to light the dangers in the factory.
Only Perrell and Chamberlin play one character each; the remaining seven actors carry multiple roles in this narrative-driven play featuring a sort of Greek chorus of journalists, lawyers and corporate cronies delivering lines that are a soundtrack of the radium days of the 1920s. All perform their roles ably and with appropriate gravitas and timing. The strength of the acting is, in fact, what enables the audience to follow the weighty script laden with heavy doses of information. In particular, Chamberlin is effective at conveying Roeder’s plight through expressions and body language. He’s clearly a man being ripped apart by the demands of his stockholders and the human costs of his work.
Because most of the action takes place off stage and is mostly told to us, a visually compelling set helps to keep audiences engaged through those long scenes. The RLT set is remarkable. Two levels of steel risers extend the stage upward and allow scenes to take place on three different levels, creating a factory atmosphere. My only complaint here is that this sometimes created difficulty in seeing actors. .
This deeply disturbing and touching play shares an important lesson in corporate greed and power—one we should all pay special attention to.