'These Shining Lives'
Published: Sunday, October 21, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
This weekend, the Boston College Theater Department opened its 2012-13 season in Robsham Theater with four performances of Melanie Marnich’s These Shining Lives. This little-known play casts light on a true but largely forgotten chapter of American history: the struggle of four women in 1930s Chicago to sue their employer, the Radium Dial Company, after they developed deadly radium poisoning as a result of their work. This historic tale was brought to compelling life by director Patricia Riggin, a talented cast of nine, and a crew whose beautiful set, costumes, and lighting design made an essential contribution to the play’s period authenticity and ambiance.
The play opens with a direct address to the audience, as a woman takes the stage to adjust our expectations, saying, “This isn’t a fairy tale, though it starts like one. It’s not a tragedy, though it ends like one.” After this intriguing opening monologue, the story proper kicks into gear as we are introduced to this woman, Catherine Donohue (Phoebe Kuhlman, A&S ’13), a young newlywed in 1920s Chicago who is looking for work to supplement her husband Tom’s income. Soon enough she finds a job that seems too good to be true: well-compensated full-time work making watches at the Radium Dial Company. Catherine takes the job and immediately fits right in, becoming close friends with her co-workers Charlotte (Maggie Maguire, A&S ’13), Frances (Nicole Trauffer, A&S ’13), and Pearl (Samantha Goober, A&S ’15).
These early scenes have a light, funny touch, defined by Catherine’s optimism and the promise of a better future. Kuhlman gives a terrific performance as the likable protagonist, a character defined by her love for her husband and children and her strong-willed, hardworking nature. She also played nicely off of Kyle Brown, A&S ’14, who played the role of her husband Tom. Their scenes together established a relationship based on mutual love and trust: even when arguments broke out, the characters circled back to apology and forgiveness, and the actors skillfully projected every complicated emotional nuance of their scenes.
Equally impressive were the actresses playing Catherine’s co-workers. From their first appearance, they invigorated the play with their witty interchanges and banter. As the outspoken, gin- and gossip-loving Charlotte, Maguire frequently brought down the house with perfect, snappy line deliveries. Goober also made an impression as Pearl, a meek character with an unfortunate penchant for terrible jokes. All four actresses played an essential part in the ensemble, providing a convincing portrayal of close female friendship—not to mention plenty of humor.
As the play continues, though, over a timespan of almost two decades, the lightness of the opening scenes turns dark. All four women develop severe diseases and are hastily fired from the company. When the women realize that their sickness is a result of radium exposure, they take the bold step of suing the company for knowingly exploiting them for labor without warning them of health risks. Catherine hires a lawyer to take on the Radium Dial Company, and the four women join forces to fight the legal battle even as their health continues to deteriorate and the case drags them and their families through the mud.
As long as These Shining Lives sticks to its most fundamental story—that of four women fighting an uphill battle for justice—it makes for compelling material. At times, though, the play suffers from being overly ambitious. Marnich’s play stirs up many dramatic themes, from gender inequality to worker’s rights to the power of corporations, but not all of these themes are explored in depth, and passing references to World War II and Prohibition seem more like strained attempts at topicality than essential components of the story. The play is also somewhat confused in its structure: it’s sometimes told in Greek chorus style and sometimes in a more naturalistic mode. These tonal shifts can be jarring and distracting, as are the occasional appearances of singers and other minor characters.
Yet these are flaws of the play itself, not BC’s production of it, which was consistently professional and intelligent. Special mention goes to the play’s scenic design, by professor Crystal Tiala. The set was a combination of practical minimalism—a table and chairs to signify Catherine’s dining room, a few desks to represent the workplace—and more striking expressionist elements in the background. Several clock faces, timepieces, and an ominously glowing hourglass were featured prominently to great effect. Other technical elements likewise echoed the play’s themes, from a recurring “tick tock” sound effect during scene changes to the dramatic lighting, especially a green spotlight used to show the glowing effects of radiation. All of these elements worked together to complement the efforts of the ensemble cast, who convincingly sold every emotional high and low of the story and turned These Shining Lives from forgotten history to something very much alive and relevant.