These Shining Lives
The shining lives of the title are those of four women, first foolish and submissive, then brave and defiant: so badly poisoned by the radium they are hired to paint on the faces of watches that their bodies shine; so mistreated by bosses, doctors and neighbors that when they finally make a stand, they shine as role models.
After years of being poisoned and long hesitation ("Girls like me don't cause trouble"), their leader Catherine Donohue (Amelia Ampuero) resolves, "Let's fix our hair and go get those sons of bitches." It is a dramatic moment, one that stands in for those moments when all employees of dishonest companies, all women and all the disinherited of the earth come into their own.
The events dramatized in the play actually occurred in a Chicago suburb in the 1920s and 1930s. Donohue and her cohorts were employed by Radium Dial, one of several large companies that produced watches and clocks whose faces were illuminated by radium, a dangerous radioactive chemical. The women were instructed to lick the hairs of their brushes to produce a fine point for painting numbers on the dials, then dip the brushes in water and radium powder. They slowly contracted radium poisoning that, among other things, destroyed their jaws.
When they are fired for absenteeism due to illness, Donohue and her three friends (portrayed by Wendy Scott, Katie Becker Colón and Evening Star Barron) sue Radium Dial. After a half dozen trials and appeals, Donohue wins a settlement of about $5,000. Three weeks later, she dies.
Ampuero, co-founder and artistic director of the company, does a grand job with the powerful role of Donohue, who is based on a real woman. More surprising, however, was the power of her husband, Tom (Ezra Colon), a good man fighting against his own instincts to free himself from the rigid male role of that era. His monologue when he discovers his wife is dying is memorable. He describes how the horrors of World War I destroyed his faith in humanity and god"until I saw Caty. There had to be a god to make her ... I was going to grow old with her. I was going to die with her."
Several of the actors play multiple roles, always a difficult feat. It is particularly difficult for Frank Taylor, who performs as both the bad guy boss Mr. Reed and the good guy attorney Leonard Grossman.
The direction by the able and widely experienced John Hardy is smooth and more than competent. The fact that a single abstract set and the same six actors portray a story that takes place over a decade and a half poses a number of problems. Although there are cues in the dialogue for those who pay careful attention, it is easy to lose track of the progression of time. It would help a great deal if the characters' costumes and makeup demonstrated both the lapse of time and the progression of their illness.
Nevertheless, this is an unusually powerful and affecting play that leaves the spectator with reservoirs of emotions and ideas that are not likely to fade quickly.
These Shining Lives continues though May 25, 2014. All performances are at the Cell Theatre (701 1st St. NW) except May 23 at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and Technology. All performances will be followed by discussion with the audience, except May 23 when the audience can meet the cast before the show, and the closing show May 25. For information and reservations go to dukecityrep.com or call 797-7081.