By Colin Douglas
The War’s finally over and once again the economy’s booming. It’s the 1920’s and women are thrilled to join the workforce, often earning enough money to care for an ailing parent or to adding a respectable second income to help support their families.
At places of business, like the Radium Dial Factory, in Ottawa, Illinois, employees were hired to paint glow-in-the-dark numbers on clocks and watch faces. The work involved sitting at a table with their fellow workers, pointing tiny paint brushes between their lips to create a fine tip and then dipping the brushes into jars of radium. For their efforts, they were paid eight cents per completed project; thus the more timepieces a woman painted, the bigger her paycheck.
The company went to great lengths to convince these ladies that, not only was radium harmless, it was actually good for them. Whenever a woman complained of health issues she was reminded by her employer, Mr. Reed, that there were hundreds of others waiting for her job. She was simply given an aspirin and sent back to work.
Catherine Donohue and her work friends began to develop increasing physical ailments. They were not only plagued by pain and weakness, but their bodies began glowing in the dark. Finally one particular doctor became brave enough to certify that these women were dying of radium poisoning. After many long delays, attorney Leonard J. Grossman agreed to represent Catherine in her case against the Radium Dial Company, which finally made it to court. Mrs. Donohue represented all her fellow employees who were suffering from work-related illnesses, including Pearl, Frances and Charlotte.
This is the story of Northlight Theatre’s world premiere Shining Lives, a Musical, beginning with the happiness and independence generated by workplace camaraderie and sisterhood, but sadly ending in tragedy.
Jessica Thebus lovingly and thoughtfully directs her own script, adapted from the play, These Shining Lives, by Melanie Marnich. It features a beautiful, emotionally sincere score by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert. Chuck Larkin’s modest orchestra, which sits off to the side of the stage, is composed of the musical talents of the show’s three male actors. Scott Davis’ spartan scenic design is enhanced by Stephen Mazurek’s lovely projections and washed in JR Lederle’s affecting lighting design.
The exquisite Johanna McKenzie Miller takes center stage as Catherine.
Strong, honestly drawn, sincere in her portrayal, Miller is the backbone of this production. Her lovely voice and enthusiastic earnestness makes Catherine a realistic woman audiences will never forget.
She’s joined by Jess Goodwin, as the demure Frances; Tiffany Topol, as spunky Pearl; and Bri Sudia as the sassy leader of their work pool, Charlotte. All four actresses work effortlessly to play real, flesh-and-blood women, each with their own personal lives and challenges.
The three actors playing the men in their lives are the always enjoyable Alex Goodrich as Tom Donohue; Erik Hellman competently playing two very different doctors; and a versatile, stalwart Matt Mueller, both as a no-nonsense Mr. Reed, the face of Radium Dial, and as Leonard Grossman, the kindhearted attorney who represents Catherine in her case.
This musical, with it’s beautiful, emotionally mellow score, continues in the path of classic films like Silkwood and Norma Rae. It paints a portrait of big business deceitfully manipulating its employees, particularly the females. It points an accusatory finger at companies guilty of doing anything, including sacrificing the health and safety of their workers, for the sake of the almighty dollar.
This story honors those who suffered, the fighters up against circumstances beyond their control. It celebrates the undaunted spirit of the American worker and condemns all the lies and deception perpetrated in the name of big business. When Catherine’s friend tells her, “Nothing will fix this,” she musters up the dignity to say, “No, but someone has to let people know it’s broken.”
“Shining Lives” runs through June 14 at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets ($25 – $78) are available online here or by phone at (847) 673-6300. Additional reviews by Colin are found www.theatreinchicago.com.