‘Radium Girls’ engages viewers with delightful performances

Early in Radium Girls, three young women paint each others’ faces with radium-based paint to ease their boredom in 1920s America. Photo by Grace Flaherty/ Photo Editor.
Early in Radium Girls, three young women paint each others’ faces with radium-based paint to ease their boredom in 1920s America. Photo by Grace Flaherty/ Photo Editor.

The history of labor litigation seems like slim pickings for playwrights. Although DW Gregory’s Radium Girls is often relegated to youth and educational theater, Cap and Bells’s minimalist production doesn’t have much in common with an AP U.S. History video project on the labor movement. Director Caroline McArdle ’18 (actress: Exit the King, Gilded Girls) distills the legal saga into a play about the easy temptation of self-denial, on the part of victims and predators alike. This approach isn’t without its drawbacks, but Molly Murphy’s ’19 (El Nogalar) impressive performance as the main radium girl Grace Fryer will make you forget at least some of them.

The play begins with three young women carefully painting watches with luminescent paint for the U.S. Radium Corporation. To stave off the boredom that only painting hundreds of tiny things every day can cause, the workers paint their teeth and faces with the radium-based paint. Today, it’s common knowledge to not put glowing things in your mouth, but that was not the case in the 1920s. In fact, the factory foreman encourages the girls to lick their brushes to keep the points fine. Eventually, workers’ jaws start to rot from necrosis, among other symptoms. People begin to put two and two together and Grace sues the company, which eventually must agree to a fair settlement, but not before Grace’s friends are dead and her engagement is broken off. Meanwhile, Jack Scaletta ’18 (Gilded Girls, Stop Kiss) portrays company president Arthur Roeder, who must contend with the increasingly difficult task of denying the radium girls’ claims, both publicly and personally.

Most actors other than Murphy and Scaletta play about a half dozen roles. This can get confusing, as there are no real costume changes. The show has an hour and a half runtime and includes no intermission and only very short gaps between scenes. I appreciated the lack of dilly-dallying, but there often wasn’t enough in the acting and costuming to let the audience know when actors had switched roles. Since Grace and Arthur are the only characters around long enough for the audience to care about, I could have done without some of the 38 roles for nine actors like “Board Member #3” and “Male Shopper.”

Murphy and Scaletta are truly the show’s emotional centers, even though they rarely appear in the same scene. Before we find out that Murphy is the most important factory worker, she is already the most captivating. Her countenance and the way she delivers her lines makes her seem incredibly sincere and world-weary. She is stoic while countless others try to influence her, but subtly reveals how indignant and distraught she feels. She and Tom Robertshaw ’19 (We Are Proud to Present, Oleanna), who plays her fiancé Tom, make the most of the simple set, transforming a wooden table into an early 20th century home with their chemistry and period-accurate speech. Christine Nyce ’19 is also excellent in the supporting role of radium girl Kathryn. She helps advance plot early on as a fast-talking, gossipy dial painter and is prominent in many of the more somber scenes with Murphy and Scaletta later on.

Mr. Roeder seems like a cold-hearted robber baron at first, but he gains humanity when we see him balance his guilt against pressures to preserve the company’s good name. Historically, U.S. radium executives protected scientists with lead walls, distributed medical literature about the dangers of radium and slandered the names of dead workers by blaming their symptoms on syphilis. The play alludes to these acts but doesn’t reconcile how Roeder could do that and be oblivious to the truth about radium. Anyway, it makes for a more multi-dimensional character, and Scaletta delivers some great scenes, culminating in a powerful closing monologue. Issy Benjamin ’19 is convincing as his high-society wife who pressures him to keep up appearances – her British accent is well-suited to the role.

The set, at CenterStage, is very intimate, with seats unconventionally positioned at opposite sides of the stage. Designer Claire Bergey’s ’17 set is just a line of tables and stools, and the sound and lighting are hardly noticeable until the final scene. This set works well for nine out of 10 scenes, but it’s not immediately clear when we’re in a courtroom or a graveyard. Russell Maclin’s ’17 lighting seamlessly directs your eye to the table where the next scene is taking place.

There are issues of gender and class latent in the play’s story, but this play does not explore them too deeply. Rather, it is a story of Grace and Arthur convincing themselves that nothing was wrong when they knew that wasn’t the case. Since the strengths of this production are Murphy and Scaletta’s performances, that’s not a bad thing. When the play goes too long without Grace or a good scene with Mr. Roeder, you do start to notice that there’s not all that much going on plot-wise and that the production has its idiosyncrasies. But there’s more than enough good acting to recommend Radium Girls. It’s playing April 21-23 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5/$3 for students.

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