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Monday, 12 November 2012 23:36

They glow

Written by Bob Wilcox
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They glow

At the turn of the 20th century, radium was celebrated as a miracle drug. We know today that radiation can be useful in treating cancer and other diseases. We also know that radiation can cause cancer and other diseases. Back then, a few successes in treating cancer led to a fad for putting radium in a variety of tonics that were supposed to be good for whatever ailed you.

Radium also glows in the dark. That made it useful for manufacturing illuminated watch and clock dials. Young women painted the radium onto the dials of the watches. Like many painters, they'd moisten their brushes in their mouths to give them a fine point. In a few years, the radium they'd absorbed caused their teeth and jaws to disintegrate. Other infirmities followed, and the young women suffered slow, painful deaths.

In Radium Girls, Playwright D. W. Gregory follows a familiar pattern used in plays, films, and TV productions about scientific advances, their benefits and dangers. She establishes the context with representative figures of the times, with newspaper reporters shouting headlines, with businessmen praising their product, with medical doctors describing malignancies. Gregory crafts the piece very well.

And, as is usually true in such pieces, she pulls us in emotionally by focusing on a couple of the victims in particular. One is Grace Fryer, one of the young women painting watches. We see her as a bubbly teen-ager laughing with her buddies at work and looking forward with her fiance to marriage, a home, children. We watch the progress of the symptoms of her radium poisoning. We see her grow through her suffering, demanding justice and proper compensation from the company, rejecting the pleas of her cash-strapped mother and the smarmy company lawyer to take the small sum the company offers as compensation – the company wants to to end quickly the bad publicity the case has generated, thanks to a crusading consumer advocate and a shrewd plaintiff's lawyer. Grace becomes amazingly tough, persistent, and smart.

The other victim, in a nice balancing act by the playwright, is the president of the company that manufactures the watches. Like everyone else, he initially thinks that radium can only be beneficial. When he learns that radium is responsible for what is happening to his employees, he's torn. He's a man of conscience. He also as a fiduciary responsibility to his partners and shareholders. He tries to take a principled stand with his main partner and with the smarmy lawyer. Radium eats away Grace's body. Guilt eats away his soul.

At St. Louis University, Taylor S. Steward and Austin N. Beals do excellent work as Grace and the president, as do all of the large cast in multiple roles. Gary Wayne Barker's direction makes the story both moving and crystal clear. Barker makes smart use of Jim Burwinkel's set of multiple levels and spaces. The spaces are isolated for individual scenes by lighting designer Mark Wilson, who also provides projected images of the period to bridge scenes and illustrate the environment, as does Chadd Finnan's sound design. Lou Bird's costumes also mark the period and class distinctions.

All involved do good, solid work on Radium Girls.

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