UCO’s streaming presentatation of DW Gregory’s RADIUM GIRLS tells the true story of 1920s radium factory workers who fought against the corrupt radium industry.
UCO’s Department of Theatre Arts presents an online streaming production of DW Gregory’s Radium Girls. The true story of the Radium Girls is a stranger-than-fiction, shocking scenario that really happened in 1920s New Jersey. UCO’s production is performed live from Mitchell Hall Theatre and features masked actors on a three-tiered set.
At the turn of the century and during World War I, radium was big business. Famed scientist Marie Curie toured the world, an overnight celebrity after her discovery and development of radium. The glowing element was used in household items, beverages, medicines, and even beauty products. The U.S. Radium Corporation hired and trained low-wage factory workers to work in radium plants, and the so-called miracle cure was a hot commodity. Clock dial factories began hiring young female workers to paint clock dials with radium paint. The dials glowed in the dark and were considered important tools for the U.S. troops. Young women eager to enter the workforce vied for these highly sought-after jobs and became the talk of the town.
Radium is now known as one of the most dangerous substances on earth. The Radium Girls were considered “shining women”. The workers often painted the radium on their teeth, wore their party dresses to work so they’d shimmer on the dance floor all night, and sprinkled it in their hair. Radium is many times more dangerous when ingested, and the radium workers were doing just that. Their employers instructed the workers to bring their paintbrushes to their lips to moisten the tips and maintain a fine point. Paid per clock dial, the workers painted dozens, even hundreds, of clock faces per day, wetting the brush with their mouths for hours and ingesting toxic levels of radium many times over.
Gregory’s play Radium Girls follows real-life factory worker Grace Fryer. When her friends and coworkers begin falling ill with toothaches and joint pain, the doctors dismiss it as poor oral hygiene, blood infections, and vitamin deficiencies. And when the young women start dying, their death reports claim they died of Syphilis. Nobody wants to go against the radium industry; it’s too lucrative and powerful. But Grace watches her friends die gruesome, painful deaths, and knows her own is next. With her health waning, Grace and the surviving Radium Girls take on the powerful corporation that’s killing them.
Director Alicia Tafoya assembles a strong cast of quality performers for this production. They give their all to present a realistic and heartbreaking story of these real-life heroines. Jillian Wheeler is Grace Fryer. Grace Fryer was a teenager when she began working at the radium dial factory. Lost to the history pages is the humanity of these young women. In their teens and twenties, and facing slow, painful deaths, they fought against corporate corruption and for worker protections and rights.
Wheeler is a solid performer, and she creates a relatable character. She has a sweet side, and a sensitive side. She has fear, sadness and sorrow. Knowing the future she should be planning with her fiancé Tommy won’t be arriving, Wheeler conveys the full range of emotions. What’s most convincing is her anger. When faced with stacking medical bills, watching her friends die, and a company that won’t even admit wrongdoing, Grace finds her strength. It’s in these moments that Wheeler truly does shine.
Justine Rogers is Kathryn and several others. Sidney Cricklin is Irene, Miss Wiley, and others. Kathryn and Irene are Grace’s friends and coworkers, and they quickly begin falling ill. Together the three vow to take on the radium industry, not just for their own compensation, but for protection for future workers.
Rogers is passionate as Kathryn, terrified when their friend Irene passes away. Cricklin is poised and determined as Miss Wiley. She helps the Radium Girls make their case, and doesn’t fear big business.
Jaelin Gonzaque gives a powerful performance as Arthur Roeder. Roeder was the President of the U.S. Radiation Corporation, and history paints him as a corrupt villain. Roeder stops at nothing to keep the truth about the dangers of radiation exposure from getting out. Gonzaque is passionate, a powerful man with a lot to lose. He sinks further into desperation, but refuses to see the truth. Gonzaque depicts a villain, but he’s also real. Gonzaque even shows remorse and brings some humanity back to such a cold historical figure.
Candice Bunce is resilient as Mrs. Roeder. She’s hopeful that her husband is doing the right thing, but inevitably, doubts start to creep in. Bunce also portrays Madame Curie and others, and she’s versatile in each role.
Nathanial Dennis is Lee and Dr. Drinker. Drinker is the industrial hygiene expert hired to investigate the working conditions at the dial factory. Drinker is the first to warn the radium corporation about the dangerous radiation levels the plant workers are being exposed to. Dennis is also a shopper who touts the miracle of radium, Dr. Flinn, and others. He plays these roles with old timey charm and grace. As Flinn he’s sleazy and corrupt, trying to force his agenda.
Anne Rhyme is stern as shop floor manager Macneil, with a motherly side as Mrs. Fryer. She wants what’s best for her daughter Grace, but grows desperate as the situation gets more dire.
Kailan Weidner is sweet and hopeful as Grace’s fiancé Tommy. Weidner also takes a turn as Dr. Knef, the dentist who examines and treats the girls when they come down with alarming symptoms. Weidner is disarming in both roles, unassuming as Tommy and downright nasty as Dr. Knef. Derailed by fear and self-preservation, Dr. Knef chooses to falsify the dental records to protect the radium company.
Nathan Rogers is Von Sochocky, Photographer, and Dr. Martland. Sochocky invented the radium paint that the factory workers used to paint the clock dials. He also became a victim of radiation poisoning, suffering necrosis in his hands and eventual death. Rogers conveys deep remorse over the mistakes he’s made. Rogers is a multifaceted performer, moving and haunting as the regretful Sochocky.
Radium Girls has been paired down from a traditional cast of 30 to 9 to accommodate social distancing and COVID-related restrictions. The set is also a non-traditional tiered version, and it creates visual interest while allowing multiple players to be on stage at once. This use of vertical space keeps the action centered on stage, and the innovative scenic design by Devin Scheef is nothing short of genius. Lighting and Projection design for this streaming show are also superbly well-done by Christina Watanabe (lighting) and Gillian Andersen (projection).
The true story of the Radium Girls is haunting, and never completely leaves you once you hear it. For nearly a century, their story has remained largely untold. The Radium Girls paved the way for organizations like OSHA and for Federal laws mandating safety protocols for workers. They even unknowingly became important in the study of radiation exposure. It’s said that even today, the radium in the victims’ bones continues to glow in their final resting places underground. Even in death, they remain America’s Shining Women.
Radium Girls streams for free online at streaming.uco.edu. Show times are 7:30 PM CST Saturday October 24th and 2:30 PM CST on Sunday October 25th, 2020.