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Theatre in Review: Radium Girls (Metropolitan Playhouse)

David Logan Rankin. Photo: Brian Lau

In Radium Girls, playwright D. W. Gregory unearths a remarkably ugly slice of American history, a tale of worker exploitation that continues to resonate strongly today. The title characters were watch factory workers in the 1920s who came into daily contact with luminous paint laced with radium. The play begins on an everyday note, with four such workers, all barely out of school, daubing their faces with the paint to play a trick on a colleague. A few minutes later, as per their manager's instructions, they insert paintbrushes in their mouths to "point" them. After all, it was precise work. It was also deadly.

The play focuses on US Radium in Orange, New Jersey and the real-life characters who worked there. As a disturbing number of them begin to die off -- suffering from the grisliest of symptoms, including grotesque facial distortions -- their cases are explained away by management as the result of poor hygiene or worse. (One death is attributed to syphilis.) Management also commissions a study from a Harvard-based industrial hygienist, then buries the conclusions. Meanwhile, since none of the afflicted have any insurance, their long, slow deaths bankrupt their families. In Laura Livingston's production, each passing is marked by the addition of another death mask to a shelf on Vincent Gunn's set, a silent witness to institutionalized murder.

The playwright does not neglect the social attitudes that allowed this horror to unfold. The girls are relatively well-paid at jobs that require a certain skill, and they are allowed to socialize on the job. Also, the era is marked by a certain nascent feminism as well as a gee-whiz attitude about progress, seen in the rise of Marie Curie Radium Clubs, whose members support "the high priestess of science" with small donations. Thanks to Madame Curie's celebrity, radium is seen as a cure-all that, among other things, will do away with cancer. Characters are seen imbibing "radium water," marketed as a tonic guaranteed to relieve arthritis and keep up one's pep.

The action most closely tracks the case of Grace Fryer, who pursues a lawsuit against US Radium, despite the opposition of her loved ones. She and her fellow plaintiffs are backed by Katherine Wiley, a consumer protection advocate, who sets up them with representation. The case proceeds, haltingly; US Radium's lawyers, making the cynical (if accurate) calculation that the girls have a year or less left to live, try to run out the clock with procedural delays. A blackmailing dentist looks to make a killing off the girls' suffering by suppressing evidence and collecting hush money. Meanwhile, Wiley, well-schooled in manipulation, moves to try the case in the press, cueing an army of sob sisters who mine Grace and her friends for tabloid tears. (As Wiley coolly notes, "The public doesn't have much sympathy for an angry woman.") Publicity brings its own set of trials. The health faddist Bernarr Macfadden tries to horn in on the case, trying to peddle his dubious herbal remedies. And letters pour into the girls from Christian Scientists, wonder tonic purveyors, and so-called lonely hearts, all seeking a piece of the action.

It's the most American of stories, combining unchecked capitalism with shameless legal maneuvering, hucksterism, and media manipulation. Gregory's strength is her ability to juggle multiple characters and plot elements while keeping the fate of the girls in the foreground. The writing is direct and plainspoken, a no-frills approach that works because the story is so natively compelling; if it builds to a rather equivocal climax, well, that's what really happened.

Livingston maintains a smart pace, deploying a cast of ten through dozens of roles. (Among her inventions is the use of multiple handheld face masks to represent crowds of reporters.) Standouts in the cast include Olivia Killingworth as the quiet, yet determined, Grace, especially when explaining to her fiancé (Kyle Maxwell) that they have no future; Kelly Dean Cooper as U.S. Radium's morally compromised Roeder, the resentful son of a minister who sees success slipping through his fingers; Grace Bernardo as the toughest of the radium girls, coldly staring death in the face; and David Logan Rankin as the factory's original owner, whose bullish promotion of radium has tragic personal consequences.

Metropolitan Playhouse's shows feature modest production values, and this is no exception. Sidney Fortner's costumes aim to give each character a distinct profile. Heather M. Crocker's lighting includes some striking UV light effects. Bill Toles sound design is rather more elaborate than usual, with effects that include crowds, applause, typewrites, ticking clocks and much more, including some appropriate incidental music.

Especially given what we have learned about the fates of so many workers in the pandemic, Radium Girls feels thoroughly contemporary. Gregory doesn't need to editorialize; the facts are plain, no more so than in the scene Grace is offered a paltry settlement. Her mother points out that it is better that nothing. "Is that all I'm worth?" Grace asks. "Better than nothing?" One hundred years later, it's a question that carries a powerful sting. --David Barbour

(3 November 2021)

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