Regional Reviews: Chicago
These Shining Lives
Also see John's review of Jersey Boys
Rebecca Spence (Catherine) and Sean Cooper (Tom) make a great couple, thrust into the world of two-income families decades before the baby boom ever got its first long pants. She's beautiful and conflicted as the wife, bringing home a respectable $8 a day (in the Roaring Twenties) for painting luminous dials on watches, and he's funny and slightly dumbstruck by the inevitable upheaval that follows. As husband and wife, they're everything we imagine a young couple in the '20s to be: like Nick and Nora Charles, just without all that dough.
Catherine's three workmates are also delightful: Ashley Neal is Pearl, in what amounts to the "kid sister" role at the dial-painting table, full of lame jokes and impatient for attention; Jessie Fisher is Frances, the moral authority who eventually realizes her own painfully misplaced trust; and Justine C. Turner is Charlotte, the fantastic Warner Brothers' style dame whose toughness is ripped away by radium poisoning, in a manner that's as hard to watch (and hard to turn away from) as a bad highway wreck.
Yes, time eventually runs out for each of these girls, who are proud to be working at all in the Radium Dial Company of Ottawa, Illinois. But time ran out for Hamlet and the Titanic and Ol' Yeller too. And the fact that their radium-based cancers don't really manifest themselves until the Great Depression only adds to the tension. Their legal fight, led by Ron Wells as a hard-driving labor lawyer, helps keep up momentum in the final scenes. Earlier, Mr. Wells does the seemingly impossiblemaking another role (as company manager) both humorous and sympathetic, even as he dismisses one girl after another for absences caused by radiation sickness.
The first sign of trouble (to a modern audience, anyway) is when Tom meets his wife on the street after work and declares that she's all aglow, from the radium dust she's exposed to. On one level, it's just another wonderful romantic moment between the pair. And some time later, when things get really rough, a subtle light change strips away the stage's backdrop where a warm household once stood, down to its bare bones, just as Catherine makes the mental connection between her lucrative job and her illness.
The little declarative "we must fight" moments land with a bit of a thump, as if the will-power of the proletariat were nothing more than a jumbo-sized box of laundry soap dropped in our laps. But everything else in the story by Melanie Marnich is perfect, touching and wistful, under the direction of Rachel Walshe. And (in spite of Catherine's opening monolog) it's also beautifully tragic.
Originally commissioned by the North Light Theater of Skokie, Illinois, These Shining Lives continues through January 31, 2009 at the Raven Theater, at 6157 North Clark, at Granville. For more information, visit the Rivendell Theatre Ensemble online at www.rivendelltheatre.net.
* Denotes member of Actors' Equity