Review: ‘Radium Girls’ at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

The horrific and – not too strong a word – evil events recounted in Maryland Ensemble Theatre’s production of D.W. Gregory’s Radium Girls were, as the play underlines, a major, sensational, national news story in the 1920s. The stories made such an impression on my mother, then a schoolgirl, that they were among the striking memories of her youth that, decades later, she related to me. The girls who worked at U.S. Radium in Orange, New Jersey, were little older than she was. They worked painting radium dials of watches, twirling the brushes repeatedly between their lips, not knowing that by so doing they were condemning themselves to slow, agonizing deaths by radium poisoning.

'Radium Girls' plays through March 10, 2019, at Maryland Ensemble Theatre. Photo by Joe Williams.
Dena Transeau, Bette Cassatt, and Surasree Das in ‘Radium Girls,’ which plays through March 10, 2019, at Maryland Ensemble Theatre. Photo by Joe Williams.

Their employers did know. Studies predating the revelations of the damage the work did, as well as more current information, told them so. They chose to ignore, suppress, or obfuscate it, like their successors in the tobacco and fossil fuel industries.

Gregory centers the story on two striking lead characters: Grace Fryer (Bette Cassatt), who begins working at the factory at age 15, and Arthur Roeder (Ron Ward), U.S. Radium’s president. Grace Fryer’s character arc takes her from innocent to victim to indefatigable fighter against the corporation, even as her health declines. Cassatt perfectly tunes her voice, emotions, and physicality to every step of Grace’s development, reaching a climax as she responds with strength and dignity to a paltry litigation settlement offer from the company’s attorney. She is dying, but she’s done with others telling her what to do. She will be heard.

Roeder is a far more ambiguous character. He does great wrong, yet is far from a simple villain. He has a conscience, but finds ways of setting it aside in the interest of the business. His life, on the surface, is perfectly unexceptionable, but he can neither quite lose a sense of the demons beneath it nor quite muster the imagination or courage to change. Ward’s characterization lives in Roeder’s gray areas.

The leads are surrounded by seven supporting players, each of whom plays at least five different roles, differentiated neatly by accents, costume pieces, and full commitment to each character. Jack Evans plays the company’s competent, bloodless, smoothly cynical lawyer, Edward Markey, as well as its founder, Dr. Von Sochochy, stricken by illness and bad conscience when he understands, far too late, what he has wrought. Molly Parchment plays Roeder’s loyal, but ultimately horrified, wife as well as taking a turn as a blithe Madame Curie, the scientist whose work led to the radium craze that fueled the company’s rise.

Julie Herber starts as the girls’ stern overseer, then appears as a reporter (a contemporary and spiritual cousin of Chicago’s Mary Sunshine), and plays a heartfelt scene as Grace’s careworn mother. J.D. Sivert is a rival reporter, Grace’s litigation attorney, an unscrupulous dentist, and, most importantly, her loving but conventional boyfriend, who simply wants everything to be normal again, even when it can’t be.

Matt Harris is Roeder’s shallow, conscience-free, corporate flack, also having a brief comic moment as a lovesick cowboy. Dena Transeau’s most important role is as consumer advocate Katherine Wiley, who recruits Grace as a plaintiff against the company. Like the reporters, she is on the “right side” of the issue but has her own agenda. Surasree Das, in addition to playing one of Grace’s coworkers, appears as Roeder’s daughter Harriet, who gets to add an ironic final note to the story.

Director Gerard Stropnicky’s achievement is not only to work with the actors in creating characterizations that stay in the audience’s mind but also to choreograph the production’s extensive movement. Working around the pillars in MET’s space, his scenic design (co-credited to Doug Grove) involves mobile set pieces that are shuttled, often in a circular pattern, into or out of the main downstage playing area. The cast moves the set pieces smoothly, often making on-stage costume changes as well, aided by upstage clothing racks. It’s all seamless and rather cinematic.

'Radium Girls' plays through March 10, 2019, at Maryland Ensemble Theatre. Photo by Joe Williams.
J.D. Sivert, Matt Harris, and Julie Herber in ‘Radium Girls,’ which plays through March 10, 2019, at Maryland Ensemble Theatre. Photo by Joe Williams.

The backdrop is a series of screens onto which are projected images of the actual women involved, the buildings where the events took place, advertisements for cure-all radium products, and the like, enriching the show’s sense of reality. Lights (Tabetha White) and sound (Tom Majarov) coordinate well, notably in a few scenes when there is a camera flash, accompanying click, and a slide of the photograph appearing on the projection screen. The background score ranges from period songs to background music underlying moods in the manner of movie underscoring. Sherry Shaner’s costumes are spot on for the period and the characters’ situations and social class positions. She creates a haunting final image for the production with Grace’s last costume.

Special kudos are due David Allerton, the dramaturg for the project. Between his passionate and informative article in the program, framed explanatory panels and contemporary newspaper articles hung in the corridor outside the theater, and likely work in helping to select the projections, his work adds greatly to the understanding of both audiences and performers of the reality behind Gregory’s dramatized treatment. I always look forward to the high-level dramaturgy made available by large companies like DC’s Shakespeare Theatre. It’s exciting to see work of this caliber in a smaller local company.

U.S. Radium was not the only malefactor of its type. An almost identical story unfolded at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois – the location later became a Superfund site – which is the subject of a similar play, These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich. I reviewed it several years ago; Gregory’s script is superior.

MET’s production of Radium Girls is first-rate in every respect. It conveys an important piece of history that remains relevant, all the more so in today’s economic and political climate. It does so with acting that packs emotional force without ever having to go over the top. It is a thoroughly award-worthy production that I recommend without hesitation.

Running Time: Two and a half hours, including one intermission.

Radium Girls plays through March 10, 2019, at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre, 31 W Patrick St, Frederick, MD. For tickets, call (301) 694-4744 or go online.