By: Chinaza Ezeh
Radium: an intensely radioactive metallic chemical element that occurs in combination in minute quantities in minerals (such as pitchblende or carnotite), emits alpha particles and gamma rays to form radon, and is used chiefly in the treatment of cancer and in radiographic devices.
Radium: used in the 1920s and 1930s by the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois to paint watch faces.
Radium: consumed through the mouth using the “lip, dip, paint” method by the Radium Girls, workers at the Radium Dial Company. Main focus: Catherine, Charlotte, Frances and Pearl.
Radium: made them shine.
Radium: tore them apart.
Hammond High School put on an incredibly thought provoking and heart wrenching production of These Shining Lives on November 9, 2019. The show is an incredible examination of the corruption and evil capable of manifesting in big business. In addition to that, the show is a testament to the resilience of human will, and more specifically, female will, at a time when it seemed the entire world stood against them.
Photo Credit: Hammond Theatre
One performance that deserves recognition is that of Ali Khalid, playing the role of Tom Donahue, Catherine’s husband. It was very easy to forget that the person on-stage was a sixteen year old boy, and not a married man with two kids and a full-time job in construction. Khalid did a wonderful job of catching the humanness of Tom. The character was absolutely multi-faceted, just as people generally are. Perhaps this is a nod to the scriptwriting, but even if Tom was written this way, he could’ve easily been played in more of a one-toned manner. Instead, Khalid captured Tom’s childlike humor, honest man’s grit, flawed ill-temper, and incredible tenderness, especially when Catherine needed it the most. One of the most touching moments in the show is when Tom reassures Catherine as she lay awake, terrified: “No one on earth can hold a candle to you; no one in heaven will come close.”
A supporting character that also deserves recognition is that of Frances, played by Katie Marshall. Frances is the most conservative one among her friends, and quite lovable all the same. Marshall captures her innocence in a way that makes the audience smile, while also warming their hearts. Of course, having such a pure character makes it all the more difficult to watch them slowly fall apart. Great credit goes to Marshall for being able to make a character so endearing, it just hurts. The moment Frances learns of her diagnosis, the complete sadness that overtakes her face is overwhelmingly real, and it’s as if the only people in the room is Frances.
The element that anchored this show was the acting. It is so easy to take a serious play and do it absolutely wrong, especially in a high school setting. Yet, each actor took their role one hundred percent seriously, and it showed. It means a lot when certain lines are remembered in shows. In this one, the three that resonate the most are: “No one on earth can hold a candle to you; no one in heaven will come close”; “Every day I wonder, if today is the day I kill Rufus Reed”; and “I’d better get the damn cherry.” Each line conveys a different emotion: comfort and pain; anger; attitude (respectively). Yet, each was remembered (for me) despite their differences.
The two most notable technical elements were the lighting and the radium. The lighting was very important for determining location, as each setting was always on-stage. Yet, the move from location to location was always seamless, and it never felt like a character was simply travelling from one side of the stage to another. Lighting was also used to show the radium at two points during the show. One was in the middle, when Catherine first discovers that her hands are permanently glowing. All the lights on the stage are turned off, so the glow emitting from Catherine’s hands is stark against the black background. The other moment is at the end of the show, when all of the radium dial workers, now deceased, step forward and show their hands, a way of symbolising that even in death, even below the ground, they remain shining.
These Shining Lives is an incredible story that simultaneously wrenches your heart, makes you laugh, and educates you about American history that is often not taught in schools. Hopefully, all of the brave radium women that now rest in their graves would be honored by such a production created in their memory and honor.