It’s 1922 in Ottawa, Ill., when Catherine Donohue begins working at the Radium Dial Company at the age of 19 to help support her family. She learns how to paint numbers on the faces of wristwatches and pocket watches and soon forms a strong friendship with three other women, Charlotte, Pearl and Frances. The four young girls support each other and discuss their hopes and dreams for the future, and Catherine and her husband learn how to better divide their time when it comes to taking care of their family.
Catherine works at the company for nine years, coming home each day covered in a shining green glow from the radium compound she uses to paint the dials. After only two years, she begins to complain of a pain in her ankle that feels like the bone is being crushed inside. The pain eventually spreads to her hip and causes her to limp. In 1931, she is let go from the company and later diagnosed with radium poisoning. She dies seven years later.
Based on an inspiring, true story during the time of the “Radium Girls,” a group of female factory workers in New Jersey who filed lawsuits after developing radium poisoning from painting watch dials in 1917, “Shining Lives: A Musical” at Skokie’s Northlight Theatre is a powerful, haunting story that stays with you beyond the final scene.
Based on the original play by Melanie Marnich called “These Shining Lives,” Northlight’s production is so captivating that it’s hard not to feel a strong compassion for the women in the story and become deeply invested in their fate. The play’s small but talented cast manages to keep you on the edge of your seat, and you’ll find yourself desperately hoping that their characters are saved or somehow realize the harm they’re doing to their bodies before it’s too late.
Each character feels very real and has a unique personality, from the confident, independent and outspoken Charlotte (played by Bri Sudia), who represents a modern twentieth century woman, to the all-business Mr. Reed (played by Matt Mueller), the head of the company. Alex Goodrich, who plays Catherine’s husband, Tom, depicts him as a caring, understanding and loving man, and Catherine, played by Johanna McKenzie Miller, is a thoughtful, kind and innocent woman. Miller’s beautiful voice also adds a lot of depth to her character.
The music in the play, directed by Chuck Larkin, is soulful and haunting. It reflects the action happening on stage and the feelings of the main characters in a very poetic way. The music comes from a small ensemble made up of three of the play’s actors (Goodrich, Mueller, and Erik Hellman, who plays two different doctors) that is seated off to the side of the stage and remains in the dark throughout the performance. The power of their music deepens the audience’s empathy for the characters and is key to the essence of this production.
Scenic Designer Scott Davis also sets the stage in such a way that it can support the story’s multiple settings, from the factory room where the women work to a pier on the shores of Lake Michigan. Davis creates these settings using a few simple props, like a wood table, chairs and paintbrushes, to depict the factory room, or a blue light to illuminate the floor underneath the stage and make it look like the lake’s water moving. The other unique quality of this production’s setting is the wall behind the stage, where two large factory windows display real-life images throughout the play, from a clock ticking and the exterior of the factory building to the ribs of a skeleton and glass breaking. A creative addition, the images reflect what’s happening on stage and heighten the intensity of certain scenes.
“Shining Lives” embodies the 1920s era, from its jazzy music and fast-paced dialogue to its tailored female skirts and men’s striped jackets and fedora hats. The dialogue is witty and funny at times, serious and thoughtful at others, and never boring. The actors also have a natural and effortless rhythm when speaking to one another, which is always enjoyable to watch.
I was convinced throughout the production that the Radium Dial Company would be swiftly and justly punished in the end. But “Shining Lives: A Musical” is not a simple story. Even though Catherine successfully sues the company and eventually wins her case, leading to labor laws in the U.S. today that regulate and enforce national safety and health standards in the workplace, it is a story that reflects the harsh realities of the corporate world. It inspires us to speak up and remember the sacrifices of those who came before.
And most importantly, it teaches us that we have to look out for ourselves because others can’t always be relied on to do it. “Shining Lives” is a remarkable production, and its story is heartbreaking but fascinating.