Clague Playhouse production of ‘These Shining Lives’ illuminates
Catherine Wolfe Donahue is not exactly a household name today but in the late 1930s her photos and story appeared in nearly every newspaper and magazine in the United States. She was known as one of the “Radium Girls” who had been employed by the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois from 1922 to 1933 to paint the luminous numbers on watch and clock faces.
The “paint” that was used was a combination of phosphor and radium powder mixed with water and the young women were trained to set the point of their brushes by licking them. This action combined with the fine dust element of the radium which would be breathed in and covered their clothing, hair and exposed skin led to many of the women to come down with radium poisoning and painful early deaths.
The docudrama “These Shining Lives” now on stage at Clague Playhouse sheds light on an episode in American history that has had a huge impact in the development of occupational safety and health standards.
Catherine Donahue (Sarah Blubaugh) begins work at the Radium Dial Company at the age of 19. She is married and the mother of two children (a boy and girl) Tommy and Mary Jane spaced a year apart. The wage of $8 a day (equivalent to $135.10 today) is too good to pass up and the company swears that there is no danger involved in the exposure to the luminous material. In fact, radium is used as a health and beauty aid as well as a cure all medication that promotes vitality.
Catherine works with three other women, Francis O’Connoll (Eliza Rodriguez), Charlotte Purcell (Tiffany Trapnell) and Pearl Payne (Emmy Cohen) who all eventually became friends over the years. As time on the job passes each woman begins to come down with various mysterious ailments that included cancerous tumors, necrosis of the jaw bone, weakness, anemia and bone cancer.
At this time no doctor (especially the one at the factory) will step forward to help until the women are able to locate Dr. Dalitsch (Keith Myers) but by this time it is too late. The situation for each woman is terminal. Having lost their jobs because of too many sick days they decide to sue the company that poisoned them. The women begin a series of lawsuits in 1935 against the company in spite of the fact there there is a mere two year statute of limitations.
It takes two years before the women can have their hearing but in July 23, 1937 they are able to meet with the Illinois Industrial Commission. Their newly hired attorney, Leonard Grossman, accepts the case and in spite of the fact that the Radium Dial Company has closed the Ottawa plant and moved it to New York State. The company states that the old factory is now defunct.
Yet another year passes but after more testimony, including Donahue from her sickbed after collapsing at the hearing, the Ottawa dial painters win their case but it is still not over. In all the Radium Dial Company appeals the decision six times taking it all the way to the Supreme Court who refuses to review the case. This is a hollow victory for Catherine and her family as she passes away after the first appeal is denied.
It must be noted that this ensemble is excellent. They work extremely well together as a well oiled machine. Except for the role of Catherine (who is on stage during most of the play) each actor has anywhere from two to six separate roles. Each role is made unique by costume, accent and voice inflection that distinguishes each part. Special attention goes to Chris Ross who tackles the rolls of Mr. Rufus Reed, Radio Announcer, Company Doctor, Son, Judge and Leonard Grossman. In spite of the small cast they really sell the story.
The show is Directed by Anne McEvoy whose theater experience works to pace the show well. From the idyllic home life to the friendships at the factory the emotions are ramped up during the diagnosis, decision to fight back and the long legal court battle all done in 90 minutes with no intermission.
Lighting by Lance Switzer and Sound by Lisa L. Wiley are excellent as always in this “little theater that can” black box. The set design by Ron Newell is sparse but this gives room for the Props garnered by Hannah Dougall. There is also a large screen above the stage where vintage newspaper clippings concerning the event are posted.
This is National Women’s Month and what better way to celebrate it than to see a production that shines the light on heroes of the female gender. In this play we are introduced to women who gave their all in the pursuit of justice so that future generations would be entitled to a safe work place. Well worth the time and price to see this show.
“These Shining Lives” will be on stage at the Clague Playhouse located at 1371 Clague Road, Westlake, Ohio through April 3, 2022. For more information or to purchase tickets go to www.clagueplayhouse.org or call (440) 331-0403.