‘These Shining Lives’ at Howard Community College’s Theatre Department & Arts Collective by Amanda Gunther

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FOUR AND A HALF STARS
The stars; a glimmer of hope in the eye of a bright young woman, the luminescence radiating from the clock face in the middle of the night, the sparkling water of a Great Lake reflected back in the glorious midday sun. All things that shine…until the truth dashes them to tragedy. Howard Community College’s Arts Collective in conjunction with the HCC Theatre Program presents the all-student production of These Shining Lives, a drama based on a true story by Melanie Marnich. Taking place in Illinois between the 1920s and the 1930s this captivating play tells the story of the women of the Radium Dial Company and how they changed the face of time to make working safer for individuals everywhere. This is neither fairytale nor tragedy but contains elements of both, and is a stunning piece of work to be tackled by college students. Directed by Brandon McCoy, this is a moving piece of theatre that actualizes things often taken for granted in today’s society.

 (l to r) Charlotte (Brenna Horner), Mr. Reed (William Mekelburg), Pearl (Ashley Zangla), Catherine (Natalie Collins), and Frances (Elizabeth Ung). Photo by Cheri.
(l to r) Charlotte (Brenna Horner), Mr. Reed (William Mekelburg), Pearl (Ashley Zangla), Catherine (Natalie Collins), and Frances (Elizabeth Ung). PhotoArt by Cheri. http://photoartbycheri.com

 While the production may be populated with talented students, it is the professional design team of the Arts Collective @HCC that adds an extra layer of stunning beauty to this production. Set Designer Heidi Castle-Smith draws a surreal and yet hauntingly beautiful sensation to the show with her enormous clock faces painted across the floor. Combined with Lighting Designer Terry Cobb’s twinkling marvels the pair create stunning moments of breathtaking beauty that is all too tragic when actualized. Costume Designer Celestine Ranney-Howes keeps the girls looking simple, using tones of blue to let the light catch the natural sparkle of the actors’ skin; a further enhancement of the play’s symbolic nature.

Sound Designer Patrick Calhoun creates a world apart in this production, with sounds that creep into the background and subtly infuse themselves into the life of the play. Calhoun’s work underscores major moments of emotional development in the production and his sound designs add layers of reality to various scenes. The one that easily springs to mind is the calm lapping water of the beach during the picnic scene at Lake Michigan; soft and gently burbling in the background with just a hint of atmospheric noise to keep the reality of the scene present; Calhoun’s work is quite poignant.

The acting is overall solid and rooted deeply with emotions, although William Mekelburg (Mr. Reed) is aloof for most of his moments on stage but does have a harrowing reaction to Tom’s accusations. Ike DeLaCruz (Tom) is the ring-leader of the male performers, finding few moments of emotional outburst to call his own and really grounding them with intense feeling behind the way he shouts. The chemistry that occurs between he and Catherine at first feels nervous and uncertain, but as the play progresses this relationship blossoms and finds a more natural cadence.

The women in the production are stellar, each crafting a finely honed character with nuance and intricate detail to their personalities. Frances (Elizabeth Ung) is the moral backbone of the foursome. Ung lets her matronly nagging tone infuse her words, making her appear more rigid than her otherwise quiet dialogue might let on, but it balances out all of the other girls in the group.

Pearl (Ashley Zangla) is a riot with her bad jokes. Zangla portrays the girl with a goofy and highly flighty approach that really makes Pearl quite sweet and loveable. She’s a bit much at times with her hysterical laughter but this is also suitable for the group dynamic as it helps distinguish her as the happy-go-lucky character with a real shining brilliance. It becomes all the more detrimental when her character begins to suffer toward the end of the show, her bubbly nature from the first half making quite the sharp contrast.

Charlotte (Brenna Horner) is a sassy spitfire pistol, a force upon the stage to be reckoned with that keeps you secretly smiling as you pretend to scold her. With a whip-like tongue good for slinging sarcasm and sharp comments, Horner really grounds into the tough exterior of this character with a flare. That is not to say Horner’s performance is without a softer more vulnerable side, it just takes a bit more for her to show it. Bristling exceptionally well against Catherine (Natalie Collins) Horner is a great antagonistic sort, if there could be one in the nature of the four girls’ relationship.

 (clockwise from bottom left) Frances (Elizabeth Ung), Catherine (Natalie Collins), Pearl (Ashley Zangla), and Charlotte (Brenna Horner). Photo by Cheri.
(clockwise from bottom left) Frances (Elizabeth Ung), Catherine (Natalie Collins), Pearl (Ashley Zangla), and Charlotte (Brenna Horner). PhotoArt by Cheri. http://photoartbycheri.com

Collins is a tremendous asset to the production with her congenial nature and gentle approach to telling the story. At first the character she creates seems very simple, no layers or depth but this quickly changes as the play progresses. That simplistic joy and happiness she finds festers like a canker hidden deep inside the petals of a blossoming flowers and when it finally oozes out its horrifying. Watching Collins transform from this vibrant lively young woman to a withered and bitter soul who is frightened but determined is truly remarkable; she does an exceptional job of telling this tale.

These Shining Lives is a shining moment on the Arts Collective @HCC’s track record, a show to see that will allow a breath of pause between all the Christmas Carols and holiday pageants this year.

Running Time: Two hours with one intermission.

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These Shining Lives plays through November 24, 2013 at Arts Collective@HCC performing at The Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center in the Smith Theatre at Howard Community College – 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.

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