Throughout history, the term ‘Cover-up’ has evoked feelings of frustration, sadness and often horror once the truth is brought to light. Public perception changed drastically about products like asbestos, tobacco, thalidomide, hexavalent chromium, and melamine. ‘Radium Girls’ became the buzzword for young women who suffered radiation poisoning as a result of the method in which they painted luminous dials on watches and instruments in the early 1900s.
Their plight was brought to the stage in 2000 by D. W. Gregory who recounted factory worker Grace Fryer’s story in the play Radium Girls, currently directed by Tristan Poje, which is now showing in Rockville at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre. Marnie Kanarek portrays Grace Fryer. She is a care-free, unassuming employee and friend of coworkers Kathryn Schaub and Irene Rudolph, played by Alice Wilkinson and Kristyn Lue respectively. They are happy to have employment during rough times. They work hard under the watchful eye of supervisor Mrs. Alma MacNeil, played by Natalie McManus. They do as they are told for years by licking their brush tip, dipping it in the luminous paint, and meticulously painting watch dials until tragedy begins to surface and girls on the factory floor fall sick.
Radium is touted as the latest and greatest discovery with countless uses. Company executives led by Arthur Roeder (David Dieudonné) and C.B. “Charlie” Lee (Erin Kelman) work quickly to exploit the market and are shocked when links to side effects are discovered. Mass media slowly changes the story as reporters Jack Youngwood (Sebastian Leighton) and Nancy Jane Harlan (Nessa Amherst) print their new findings. The company’s lawyer Edward Markley (Jason Damaso) and Dr. Von Sochocky (Steven Kaufman) conspire to characterize their product as safe when properly handled. Even Dr. Marie Curie (Deliana Daskalova) touts the extraordinary cancer-fighting properties of radiation!
There are touching moments revealed in the Roeder household as they wrestle with corporate success versus victims’ rights. The Fryer family struggles with the decision to fight instead of keeping the peace. When the head of the New Jersey Consumer’s League hears Grace Fryer’s story she begins to garner public attention and counsels Grace to keep smiling because “The public has no sympathy for an angry woman.”
Many of the cast members played multiple roles during the performance. But I want to call special attention to Jim Kitterman, who plays smarmy scientific consultant Frederick Flinn, PhD.; corrupt company scientist, Dr. Martland; wishy-washy spokesperson, Raymond Berry; and ultimately a Lovesick Cowboy offering solace to girls suffering from radiation poisoning.
The set provides an austere factory backdrop designed by Maggie Modig. The production team’s creativity moves the audience between factory floor, company offices, courtroom, residential settings and public spaces thanks to the enormous efforts of Steven Leshin (Master Carpenter), Anne Cary (Properties Master), Joe Palamara (Lighting), and Steve Deming (Projections & Special Effects). Daniel Bentz deserves special mention for the sound effects his team Mike Eudy and Tony Dwyer delivered to perfection. In particular – an eerie ticking clock creeped the audience out. Praveen Javehrani and Evelyn Renshaw executed various lighting elements including the ever-present luminous dials, which gnawed at our belief that light in the darkness is always good.
Stage Manager Jerry Callistein and Deck Manager Jen Katz deserve enormous credit for the ballet they engineer between cast, crew, stage and props. It seemed to me as though everything appeared in the right place at the right time and the ping-pong elements of disparate vignettes were presented seamlessly.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Compliments to all those who worked behind the scenes to make this a completely professional production with an all-volunteer staff: David Levin, Howard Williams (Co-producers); Kristen Davis (Assistant Director); Daniel Bentz (Sound Designer); Stephanie Yee (Costume Designer); Becky Blatt (Properties Assistant); Nicole Ottoviano (Lead Make-Up Artist) and Dani Truland (Assistant Make-Up Artist); and the people who made everything look so authentic: Charles Cary, Peter Cary, Amanda Curi, Tony Dwyer, Nathaly Gomez, Gary Grotsky, William Kolodrubetz, Eddy Leon, Paola Marci, Kathy McCarty, Ralph Nelson, Damaris Ramos, Ellen Ryan, Hayley St. Pierre, Bailey Shoppa, Tim Shoppa, Lennon Shumway, Leo Williamson, Reina Williamson and Jan Suit.