Silver Spring Stage These Shining LivesBy Bob Ashby • Oct 28th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Silver Spring Stage
Woodmoor Shopping Center, Silver Spring, MD
Through November 17th
1:50, no intermission
$20/$18 Seniors, Juniors
Reviewed October 27th, 2012
Ranking with the Minimata, Japan, mercury pollution disaster and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, the story of the “radium girls” of the 1920s and 1930s remains one of the 20th century’s most shocking, and saddest, examples of corporate mass homicide. The Radium Dial Company hired thousands of young women, many in their teens, to paint luminous clock and watch face numbers with highly radioactive radium paint. The company, despite knowing the dangers, continued for many years to encourage workers to dip the paint brushes in their mouths to hone their points, resulting in horrific, fatal cancers and other diseases. The subject of widespread, sensational newspaper coverage (much of it, especially in the New York area, favorable to the workers and excoriating the company), the scandal became a powerful, long-lasting, part of popular culture. I first heard about it as a child from my mother, who had read the coverage as a young woman not far removed in age from many of the victims.
These Shining Lives, now in production at Silver Spring Stage, seeks to convey a deeply emotional understanding of the experience of the women involved, focusing on four friends at the company’s Ottawa, Illinois, plant. The play’s structure is something of a mashup: playwright Melanie Marnich seemingly was uncertain whether she was writing a portrait of a happy marriage facing tragedy, a female bonding story, a docudrama, or a polemic against corporate evil. The play’s scenes swing back and forth among these elements, creating an inconsistent tone and a choppy, sometimes plodding, pace.
That said, the quality of the acting in the Silver Spring production is uniformly high. As the central character, Catherine Donohue, Caitlyn Conley convincingly portrays her transitions from a radiant young wife, excited to have the chance to earn money at the best-paying business in town; to a loyal friend to her co-workers; to a worried woman who sees her health deteriorating for reasons she can’t understand; and finally to a woman who knows she is dying yet who has the courage to fight against the company that harmed her and her friends. Save one scene in which the script impels her to serious scenery-chewing in anguished response to her children’s offstage voices, Conley’s emotional tone is spot-on throughout her character’s journey.
Conley and David Dieudonne, as her husband, Tom, paint a persuasive picture of a couple deeply in love, dealing first with the strains of a woman working outside the home, in an era when that was uncommon, and then with Catherine’s fatal illness. Though Marnich’s writing for Tom waxes a bit over-lyrical at times (based on contemporary newspaper clippings, the historical Tom Donohue was considerably more plain-spoken), the way Catherine and Tom interact, in tender moments and in quarrels, sounds like a marriage. The two actors’ timing in their scenes together is impeccable.
There is also excellent ensemble work among Conley and her three friends: feisty, mouthy Charlotte (Toni Carmine); jokester Pearl (Anette Kalicki), and moralistic but kindly Frances (Harlene Leahy). They believably portray the women’s joy in comradeship as well as determination in the face of illness and death. Their nemesis is production line supervisor Rufus Reed (Bob Scott). Despite some decent instincts, the mendacity and cowardice of Scott’s organization man character make him the main target of the women’s – and the playwright’s – ire. It is curious that Marnich chose to make this middle-management type the primary villain of the piece, given that the company’s far more culpable owner, Joseph Kelly, who ran similar operations in New Jersey and other states with similarly dire results for his workers, gets off with scarcely a mention.
Jonathan Dyer, in a fine utility infielder turn as three different doctors, a radio announcer, and a judge, and Seth Ghitelman (also the show’s producer), as the women’s lawyer, round out the cast. The short scene in which Dyer, as the only doctor who will tell the women the truth, informs them of their fate, is the evening’s most dramatically gripping moment.
The production begins – or perhaps, better, doesn’t begin – with a nearly six-minute playing of k.d. lang’s version of “All I Need is the Air I Breathe” to an empty stage. Sweet song, but the play really doesn’t need an overture. (I found myself looking at the illuminated dial on my watch, wondering when we would get to see an actor.) The remainder of the sound design (by Mike House and Jamie Coupar), featuring heartbeats and lakeshore sounds, is effective. Peter Caress’s lighting design makes particularly nice use of blue lights for situations involving the characters’ exposure to the effects of radium. In addition to work benches and other small set dressing pieces, director Bob Benn’s functional set design consists of a series of white panels across the back of the stage, two portions of which open up to become part of the Donohue’s house and various offices, respectively. Given the prominence of the discussion of time in script, the house set ironically includes a stopped clock: it is always 6:48 at the Donohues’.
Catherine Donohue’s story and that of the radium industry in Ottawa are even more macabre than shown in These Shining Lives. Carole Langer’s 1987 documentary film Radium City notes that after the Radium Dial Company closed in the 1930s, Joseph Kelly almost immediately resumed production with a company called Luminous Processes Inc., which continued operations into the 1970s, still employing large numbers of young women. The factory was ultimately torn down, its radioactive debris scattered around the area, which became a nest of Superfund sites. As for Donahue, her remains were exhumed by the Argonne National Laboratory some four decades after her death for a study of the effects of radiation. The remains still had a radium concentration 1000 times the estimated safe dose.
“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” – Elie Wiesel
One day in 1931, while standing on the shore of Lake Michigan with her friends, Catherine Wolfe Donohue says :…the thing I’m afraid of …is being invisible. Disappearing. Without anyone knowing the truth. That just seems …wrong.”
So, in honor of the life and all too untimely death of Catherine, we are here, today, in witness of what she and her friends – her colleagues at Radium Dial Company – went through, so that we would know the truth about what happened to her and hundreds of other young women in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois.
As a result of the research into the illnesses of these women, the people involved in the Manhattan Project were better protected from the toxic elements they were working with. The government program that was set up for the Manhattan Project eventually became what we now know of as OSHA – the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – an organization whose work is far too timely and has a lasting legacy – as recent events continue to prove, locally and beyond.
Photos by Harvey Levine
- Catherine Wolfe Donohue: Caitlyn Conley
- Tom Donohue: David Dieudonne
- Charlotte Purcell (and Reporter, Jingle Singer: Toni Carmine
- Rufus Reed: Bob Scott
- Pearl Payne: Annette Kalicki
- Frances O’Connell (and Reporter, Jingle Singer): Harlene Leahy
- Dr. Rowntree, Dr. Dalitsch, Company Doctor, Radio Announcer, Judge: Jonathan Dyer
- Leonard Grossman: Seth Ghitelman
- Children’s voices: Ian Murray & Kelsey Murray
- Producer: Seth Ghitelman
- Director: Bob Benn
- Stage Manager: Jerry Schuchman
- Set Designer: Bob Benn
- Lighting Designer: Peter Caress
- Lighting Assistant: Don Slater
- Sound Designers: Mike House, Jamie Coupar
- Board Operators: Patrique Beard, Jamie Coupar, Brenda Ryan, Fred Williams
- Costume Designer: Harlene Leahy
- Master Carpenter: Pan Stolarz
- Scenic Painting: Bob Benn
- Set Construction and Painting Assistants: Steve Ammidown, Bob Benn, Caitlyn Conley, Seth Ghitelman, Harlene Leahy, Bob Scott, Mary Seng, Bob Thompson, Peter Wuttke
- Set Decoration & Dressing: Sonya Okin
- Porperties: Sonya Okin
- Hair Design: the Cast
- Artistic Liaison: Leta Hall
- Playbill Cover Design: Craig Allen Mummey
- Playbill: Leta Hall
- Subscription Brochure: Craig Allen Mummey
- Hospitality: Kathie Mack
Disclaimer: Silver Spring Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8794.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.