“Radium Girls” Radiates Pain and Triumph

Photo by Jake Scaltreto

Photo by Jake Scaltreto

Presented by Flat Earth Theatre
Written by D. W. Gregory
Directed by Lindsay Eagle

September 4th – 19th, 2015
Charlestown Working Theater
Charlestown, MA
Flat Earth on Facebook

Review by Gillian Daniels

(Charlestown, MA) There is a poem by Julianna Baggott, “Marie Curie Gives Advice to her Daughter Irene Before her Wedding.” This is how it ends:
“My hope, daughter, is that
what you love doesn’t come to kill you,
eye by eye, ear by ear, bone by radiant bone.”

The friend with whom I went to see “Radium Girls” mentioned it to me after the show was over. It’s easy to see why. This is a play about not just losing one’s life to radium, but losing everything. Grace Fryer (the magnificent Erin Eva Butcher) loses both her fear and trust while Arthur Roeder (Bridgette Hayes) loses faith in the United States Radium factory and in himself. What you love–what you trust to take care of you, what you trust to be there for you–might indeed ultimately kill you.

Grace, when the play begins, is a complacent factory worker in the midst of a world enamored with the novelty of radium. It’s a miracle and, for people selling snake oil, a cure-all. She thinks the paint brushes she and the other factory girls lick to a point taste strange, but says nothing. Of course it’s fine. That’s how they paint the dials and it must be right if they say so. Even her friends are so sure of radium, once they begin to get sick with anemia and necrosis of the jaw, they figure they’ve been poisoned by phosphorus.

Butcher’s character is transformed and transformative: the white-knuckled rage she brings is inspired and breathtaking. As it becomes clearer that the factory is decidedly self-interested, that warnings were given and ignored, that no one in the public sphere has much investment in her beyond the tragedy that’s begun to eat up her life, Grace hardens her heart and grows a backbone just in time to lose it.
Hayes’ Arthur Roeder ends up being the industrialist villain of the piece, a greedy proprietor blinded by his fortune, but his fall from grace results in a self-doubt. His character breaks into someone more vulnerable and hurt as Grace’s grows strong. His sureness of his cause is at times bewildering, but not as his fear of failure comes to light.

The all-female cast, directed by Lindsay Eagle, is a thematic choice that puts a deeply chilling turn on D.W. Gregory’s play. Not only is this a story of industry unchecked, market demand and greed exceeding human empathy, but a piece about women struggling to claim a voice. Other stylistic choices like the simple set design (Debra Reich) and actresses changing costumes (Stephanie K. Brownwell) on-set hammer home the story’s bare, essential truths about worker’s rights and corporate self-interest. As an advocate for their cause, Katherine Wiley (Kamelia Aly) warns Grace early on that the public is uncomfortable with an angry woman. I was chilled by the moment and sure that this sentiment hasn’t changed very much today.

One of the only scenes to really stick out is a dream sequence. In it, the stage takes on the glow of a post-apocalyptic video game where Marie Curie (Katharine Daly) acts as factory foreman. Her face glows ghoulishly in the dark as she stands over the girls, laughing and demanding they paint. It’s wonderfully staged and perfectly in tune with the anxieties of the show, yes, but it seems like an interlude from another story, a science fiction piece describing the cold-hearted capitalism of the play’s material in more abstract terms. Maybe its function is a reprieve from the difficulty of watching Grace and her friends slowly sicken.

Much like February’s Flat Earth Theatre production of Terra Nova, we already know the fates of those involved with the historical tragedy of the Radium Girls. This is a play about what we lose in pursuit of our goals and what we gain when we advocate for ourselves. This is not a cheerful journey, but it’s a necessary and sometimes even beautiful one of survival. With any luck, “Radium Girls” seems to indicate, losing everything can be worth it if we learn from the experience.

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