Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
These Shining Lives
Also see Patrick's review of Fiorello!
Based on the lives of four young women who were hired by the fictional Radium Dial watch company of Ottawa, Illinois, in the 1920s, the play focuses on the inner strength, spunk, and sheer determination of the women, many as young as 15, who were paid a pittance (8 cents per), but to them a princely sum, to paint the numerals on the faces of wristwatches with radium. The carcinogen made the watch faces glow, and eventually did the same for the women as it relentlessly sickened them. The corporate greed and non-existent labor standards of the day resulted in companies directing the women to use their lips to create a fine point on their paintbrushes before dipping that point into the radium powder, a task repeated hundreds of times daily.
Featuring five RVP newcomers on scenic designer Malcolm Rodgers' surreal stage dominated by a giant clock-face, the story begins with young worker and wife Catherine (Jessica Dahlgren) leading us through the time, which she describes as "Not a fairy tale, though it starts like one, and not a tragedy, though it ends like one," when she and co-workers, the sweet Frances (Jazmine Pierce), comic and adorable Pearl (Carly Van Liere), and ballsy Charlotte (Sarah Williams), develop the illnesses which will eventually kill them. Frankie Stornaiuolo plays Catherine's husband Tom in a production that is capably and unsentimentally helmed by RVP regular Mary Ann Rodgers, whose directorial skills shine.
Rodgers' real-life husband, RVP stalwart Malcolm Rodgers, who also designed the sparse set, gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Radium's "company doctor," the definition of which one character claims is, "A doctor who works for the company." In the role, Rodgers' brusqueness and righteous indifference while "examining" Catherine will make you want to shout "Shame!," while his subtlety in a closing scene with Stornaiuolo is one of those moments that might bring tears to your eyes.
Founded in 1930 as an escape from the Depression, Ross Valley Players is the oldest continually operating community theater company on the West Coast (complete with brand spankin' new seating), and productions like These Shining Lives, which spotlights a mash-up of wonderful work by new talent Dahlgren, Pierce, Williams, Van Liere and Stornaiuolo and seasoned veterans like Rodgers, should ensure the company's continued success for years to come.
You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll bristle with indignation watching this beautifully balanced and impeccably well-cast ensemble. It's a do-not-miss production.
These Shining Lives, through March 31, 2019, at Ross Valley Players, The Barn Theatre, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross CA. Performances are Thursday 7.30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m. For tickets and information, visit rossvalleyplayers.com or call 415-456-9555 Ext 1.