‘These Shining Lives’ at Silver Spring Stage by Amanda Gunther

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It isn’t a fairytale, though it may start like one. And it isn’t a tragedy, though it does end like one. It’s a story, and more than that it’s Silver Spring Stage’s fall offering of Melanie Marnich’s These Shining Lives. Based on the true events of the women who worked for the Radium Dial Company, this compelling drama will leave your heart pouring out for these women of a foregone time who paved the way for a safer working environment of all women in the future. Directed by Bob Benn, this play becomes not only a production done in memory for those that survived circumstances beyond their control, but it becomes an honorarium to those who fought the battle and lost along the way, clearing the path for those that would follow.

Running as a one act play with no intermission pacing is key and some of the set design elements as well as sound and lighting hold back the potential for this production to move along more efficiently. The opening number is a very long silent intro after the traditional housekeeping announcements are made; the house lights don’t even fade right away — part of Lighting Designer Peter Caress’ opening image of full light fading to subdued blue light with nothing but twinkling stars behind. For me, this effect would have been equally as profound had it not been stretched out for such a lengthy period of time.

(L-R) Harlene Leahy (Frances O’Connell), Caitlyn Conley (Catherine Donohue), Toni Carmine (Charlotte Purcell), and Annette Kalicki (Pearl Payne). Photo by Harvey Levine.

The scene changes, because of the nature in which walls are opened up and furniture is then spilled onto the stage to create the main home, drag a bit, causing periods of action to stall from one moment to the next. While Set Designer Bob Benn does a miraculous job at crafting the hidden interior of Catherine’s house, taking the minimalist approach, as he did with the work benches of the Radium Dial scenes would have made more sense here.

The acting of the four women involved in the production is superb. But at times, Director Bob Benn has focused all of his attentions on the females, leaving the men to fend for themselves. While the central focus of the show is the women and their struggles, a large part of Catherine’s struggles comes from the turmoil between her and her husband Tom (David Dieudonnè). While Catherine’s character is receptive and explosive, depending upon the situation, Dieudonnè’s,emotions sometimes feel contrived. When he hugs her or attempts to be affectionate with her there is a sense of anguish in his physicality as if it pains him to be intimate with her. Dieudonnè does, however, make a convincing man seized by rage when he goes after Rufus Reed (Bob Scott) late in the show.

(L-R) Caitlyn Conley (Catherine Donohue), Bob Scott (Rufus Reed), and Toni Carmine (Charlotte Purcell). Photo by Harvey Levine.

The four women of focal emphasis are like the cards in a deck. Frances is the heart, kind and compassionate with morals a plenty to share. Pearl is the club as they’re funny to look at and she’s constantly making corny jokes. Charlotte is the spade, well rounded with a sharp tongue and sarcastic point at the tip of it. And Catherine is the diamond; a shining glistening treasure amid the rubble. Together they create a bond of friendship that outlasts even the most trying tribulations, including Radium poisoning from a corporation that was all too willing to knowingly turn a blind eye to their employees plight.

Pearl (Annette Kalicki) is the quietest member of the four women; her corny jokes making her soft nature just a touch humorous. Kalicki does have a wilder side, revealed a bit later in the play, though when discussing it she always remains poised and mild mannered. Her interactions with Catherine are touching, like a younger sister to her older one, and her sweet disposition makes her instantly likeable.

Frances (Harlene Leahy) is the moral backbone of the group. Out-aging them all by a few good years if not decades, Leahy acts as the fiber that holds them together. Her characterization is akin to Betty White when she starts in on an anecdote or moral judgment of one subject or another. While she’s nobody’s mother she is motherly in her involvements with Catherine, but only just subtly so.

(L-R) Jonathan Dyer (Doctor) and Caitlyn Conley (Catherine Donohue). Photo by Harvey Levine.

Charlotte (Toni Carmine) is a real pistol of a character. With a chip on her shoulder that’s just big enough to aid in the shooting off of her whip-snake tongue with a sarcastic point, Carmine is the perfect catalyst for many of the situations. Her character’s fiery and boisterous nature clashes with Catherine’s at first and later blends to inspire her to be the leading force they need.

Catherine (Caitlyn Conley) is a passionate soul with conflictions over family and work. Her drive right from the beginning is backed with solid reasoning, her emotions running strong and high without being overdone or phony. Her ability to tell a story is incredible; the audience hanging on every word as she repeats her history in a somber reflection. And when Conley hits her breaking point — teetering precariously on the edge between her convictions and the madness of her illness it is a harrowing moment to watch. Her personality illuminates the stage, as brightly as the radium glows through her skin; a stellar performance perfecting a range of emotions and importing a world of experience into one short show.

The four woman perfect a moment together; the ladies of leisure lounging about on the lake shore one lazy afternoon. Their jovial mannerisms and lighthearted conversations make this moment stand still in time. And when they return sometime later; bedraggled, broken, sick — it is a humbling and haunting comparison to the brilliant radiance of a life once lived. Count with them the things that shine and hope that it is never your life that stops shining the way theirs did.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.

These Shining Lives plays through November 17, 2012 at Silver Spring Stage – 10145 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 593- 6036, or purchase them online.

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Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.