These Shining Lives is the story of four ordinary women who, through their struggle, ended up finding true friendship. The play honors the memory of these women who gave their lives for a job they loved and fought the system to make a change in a time that refused to acknowledge the issue.
Performing this weekend (October 27-30) at the Barnum Studio Theatre at Simpson College in Indianola, These Shining Lives is an examination of changing roles, the strength of character, and standing up to those who might consider harm to others an "acceptable risk".
It is the story of Catherine Donahue (quoted tragically above) and her fellow "Radium Girls" at the Radium Dial plant in Ottawa, Illinois. Watch factories became popular in the 1920s, supplying well-paying jobs specifically for women in an era that had very little opportunities for them. Catherine and many other females rushed to apply. The job consisted of painting the hour markings onto watch faces with the chemical compound Radium. It was marketed as a miracle substance, but would be proven false when the factory girls were overcome with the effects of radium poisoning.
Radium was used everywhere at the time. It was about as ubiquitous as plastic is today, and was even touted at one point as a miracle cure for illness. The ladies at Radium Dial in Ottawa used it to paint numbers on watch dials and military control panels so the displays would be brighter, and even glow in the dark. This fine, delicate work was often done using a small paint brush that the women were encouraged to "point" by forming it with their lips, causing them to almost constantly ingest the radium, bit by bit. And, in a few years, many of them started to die....
Director Ann Woldt describes the enormous physical deterioration the women went through, almost unheard of in our world of modern medicine:
"The effects of radium poisoning are horrendous. Catherine actually had two pieces of her jaw removed. We spent time discussing and researching exactly what happens to the body. The body absorbed radium like it does calcium, so it basically ate away at the bones from the inside out. Bones would break extremely easily."
"The story is not only about the tragedy of what happens to these women physically, but how workers, in general, were treated by larger corporations at that time. Workplace environments were often times extremely dangerous and workers safety was often ignored. The courage it took for Catherine Donahue to decide to hold Radium Dial Company accountable is truly inspiring."
Amazingly, not that many people are aware of the events dramatized in These Shining Lives... even in Ottawa itself. Some of the students involved in the show, including performer Audrey Kaus, used part of their recent fall break from Simpson to make a field trip to Ottawa to research the story.
Audrey reports, "I honestly didn't know what to expect. I thought Ottawa was going to be a really small town and that this event in history would be extremely well known. We talked to a couple men who were doing yard work at the cemetery and they acted as if they had no clue that this even happened. They then directed us to an older gentleman who had worked at the cemetery for 50+ years since we were looking for a specific headstone. They said he knew where it would be and sure enough, he gave us exact directions and told us what her headstone looked like. I'm personally very surprised that the town of Ottawa doesn't make a bigger deal about this considering how many women died at the hands of radium. I don't think they are too proud of this moment in history."
Even given that the story of Catherine and the rest of the "Radium Girls" is 100 years old, more people should likely be aware of those "moments in history." Since the dangers of radium are now well known, perhaps it's no longer a meaningful issue. And yet, there are reasons the story should be told.
Audrey continues, "The one thing I had trouble with was getting into the "20's" mindset of that women did everything around the house, and it was a new thing for women to work. That's clearly not how things are today, so that was a little bit of a struggle to remember in the early processes of the show. I think the only way to relate their case and struggles is by relating it somewhat to the struggle women have in the workplace with sexual harassment. I guess that's really the only thing that comes to my mind because a lot of the time women aren't believed initially in this instance. They're usually brushed off just like these women are until things get serious. Now usually women don't die from workplace harassment, but its still a thing that can be related. The women then were brushed off and no one believed them, and now when things like workplace harassment happen, similar things happen in reaction to a report."
And again, director Ann Woldt says, "I hope that the audience sees beyond the tragedy and discovers the triumph of these women's fight for justice and equality."
The actors themselves are going through their own search in developing their parts, and These Shining Lives will likely stick with them forever. "I have learned so much as an actor as this is my first lead role," says Audrey, who plays Catherine. "I've never had the chance to dive this deep into a character before and this show is so beautiful, but also so emotionally draining. By the end of rehearsal I'm usually really tired because of how much raw emotion is in this show."
"I hope that audiences can get the same attachment to our characters, remember that our characters were real people, and to go on this beautiful and emotional journey with us as we perform it. It's truly one of the most beautiful shows I've ever had a chance to be a part of and I'm so thrilled to have this opportunity."
"If you're free and want to see a great play (that might be a bit of a tear jerker), These Shining Lives is for you!"