For its production of D.W. Gregory's historical drama Radium Girls, Beowulf Alley Theatre has a greenish spotlight in the center of the stage. When director (and set designer) Sheldon Metz came out to introduce the play on opening night, he edged away from the glowing light, joking, "That's radioactive."
The plot of Radium Girls would make anyone nervous. It's a dramatization of the real-life case of workers in a radium factory in New Jersey who fell ill after painting watch dials with a glowing radium solution. The women licked their paintbrushes after each application, blissfully ignorant that the radium would eventually cause necrosis (rotting) of the bone, starting in the jaw.
The workers were soon facing slow and certain death from radium poisoning, and several sued the United States Radium Corp., becoming known in the press as the Radium Girls.
The play begins in 1926, when Madame Curie (Joan O'Dwyer), discoverer of radium, visits the U.S. and receives a hero's welcome. Our protagonist is Grace Fryer (Nicole Scott), a young worker in the plant. Grace dropped out of school to work, eager to help support her large family, and she's proud to be contributing to science by working with radium.
Scott is the only actor who plays just one character. The rest of the cast (four other women and four men) each portray a variety of supporting characters, helping to tell the complex legal and medical saga that unfolds.
When one of Grace's friends, Irene (Bree Boyd-Martin), dies, Grace and another worker, Kathryn (Samantha Cormier), try to file a complaint with the company. They are stymied in their efforts, and their situation only worsens when they start to show symptoms, too.
Their cause finally gets off the ground with the help of consumer-advocate Katherine Wiley (also Boyd-Martin, whose crisply distinct characterizations make her the strongest player in the cast). Wiley helps the girls elicit a public outcry over their condition, but they still get the legal runaround, even as their health declines and their medical bills pile up.
The founder of the U.S. Radium Corp., scientist Von Sochocky (David Swisher), bows out early on and hands over the company to businessman Arthur Roeder (Jared Stokes). Roeder is thus left to deal with the legal fallout.
Playwright Gregory makes the smart decision not to make Roeder a cardboard villain, treating him instead as a typically complex human. We see Roeder cling fiercely to denial, refusing to believe that the miraculous radium could be hurting people. He allows himself to be swayed by his business partner, Charlie Lee (Michael "Miko" Gifford), into making some dubious maneuvers to evade legal responsibility—but we also see his growing sense of guilt.
The media is an important player in the story, and Joshua Silvain and Pat Timm periodically play reporters gleefully announcing the garish headlines of the day. We also see them eagerly pounce on the story of the Radium Girls, interrogating Kathryn and Grace about how it feels to face early death. Several amusing commercials for radium products are enacted by the ensemble.
There's a grim humor to the play, particularly in the first half; Gregory makes full use of dramatic irony as the characters unknowingly swig radium tonics and discuss radium's healthful effects.
The second half is slower-moving and more melodramatic. In fact, one wonders if all of the legal back-and-forth in Act 2 is truly necessary. The play might have benefited from being a half-hour shorter. Still, the ensemble cast does solid work, with Scott, Cormier and Boyd-Martin as stand-outs.
What's puzzling and frustrating about the production is the lighting. That glowing green spotlight serves as a visual evocation of radium, but most of the stage (and the relatively bare-bones set) is kept in darkness. Most of the time, the actors are partly in shadow. The few lighting changes happen too slowly, making some of the scene shifts awkward.
Given that the glowing light of radium is a major theme in the play (it opens with the line, "Light. So much light!"), the dimly lit stage is distracting. I'll give lighting designer Raulie Martinez the benefit of the doubt and assume this was a thematic choice and not a mistake, but it doesn't really work.
What does work is the music: Composer Alex Greengaard has provided a creepy, subtle soundtrack that creates just the right atmosphere.
Despite some hiccups, Radium Girls is a strong production and a smart choice for Beowulf Alley, now headed by recently appointed artistic director Michael Fenlason. The play, which premiered at the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in 2000, has been produced all over the country—and I'm glad Beowulf has brought it to Tucson. It's a darkly entertaining piece, and it carries an extra punch because it's a true story.
"Names have not been changed to protect the innocent ... or guilty," Metz announces in the program notes.
In fact, the only real villain in Radium Girls is our peculiarly naïve faith in the miracles of science. This blind belief, coupled with the American eye for a get-rich-quick business opportunity, makes this story of radium a truly toxic tale.