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Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009

Renaissance Theaterworks’ Emotional ‘These Shining Lives’

Theater Review

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"It was the job of the century, the job of our dreams," says Catherine Donahue, a factory worker in the 1920s in These Shining Lives, a new play by Melanie Marnich. The line was part of a one-time reading staged by Renaissance Theaterworks, which, as "Milwaukee's only women-founded, women-run theatre company," brings women’s experiences front and center.

The story of the "Radium Girls" of New Jersey has been told in books, poems, films and at least one other play; here, Marnich focuses on Chicago's Radium Dial Co., where young women, hired to paint luminous watch faces for unusually high wages, gradually succumb to the horrific effects of radiation poisoning. You can see the story unfold as soon as they start licking the tips of their radium-tipped brushes—which they do for many scenes before the frightening symptoms kick in.

Recently emancipated, bringing home good money, the women are having the time of their lives. We see the domestic tensions unleashed by the role-reversal of a working wife; the first appearance of disturbing symptoms; the women's struggles with their own denial; the company's craven attempts to hush them up; the scorn of their neighbors and the press; the lawsuits, followed by victory, and their eventual grisly deaths. As poet Adrienne Rich wrote (about Marie Curie, another casualty of the element she discovered): "Her wounds came from the same source as her power."

Marnich tells the story neither for outrage nor sensationalism, but for poetry. It's hard to imagine an actual working-class couple speaking as lyrically as Tom and Katie do, and director Drew Brhel has coached the actors to only slightly suggest period speech and manners. But the absence of the trappings of a full staging only collapses the distance between these characters and us; Marnich's words and the actors' skills hit home with devastating force. Amber Page and Nicholas Harazin provide a deep emotional core as the young couple; Ruth Arnell brings personality to the perkiest of the factory girls; Jonathan Gillard Daly does thankless duty playing a series of empty suits.

The play attempts to bring us down gently, showing Catherine’s heroism in standing up for the truth—the stakes could not be more vividly portrayed. Her courage shines brighter as her body weakens. Still, we leave the theater aching from the impact of this true tale, which only gains power from the artifice of its telling.