STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
For anyone with a conscience, it should be next to impossible to sit back and enjoy the Fort Lewis College Theatre Department’s production of “Radium Girls.”
But that’s not from any shortcoming of the mixed cast of current and past FLC students. Rather, they’re so collectively convincing that I left wanting to pummel actors Mike Moran, Geoff Johnson and Adam Sowards as I left the main stage theater at Wednesday night’s preview of the new show.
My reaction is inarguably the one that playwright D.W. Gregory had in mind when she published “Radium Girls” in 2003. It’s based on the true story of the U.S. Radium Corp. and how its management dealt with the unforeseen effects of deadly radiation on company employees. Most were young girls who painted watch faces and other items with radium-infused glow-in-the-dark paint; almost all of them were dead by their late twenties from radiation poisoning.
As per Gregory’s original script, nine actors play about 30 roles in “Radium Girls.” Only two, Erin O’Connor as Grace and Mike Moran as company president Mr. Roeder, play a single role and the rest of the cast takes on several characters. But it’s not nearly as confusing to watch as it is to write about, and it takes nothing away from the story.
The play focuses on Grace, who watches her friends and co-workers die while getting increasingly sick herself. Instead of proceeding with her wedding to Tom (Brad Abeyta), Grace instead must fight the corporation and its stonewalling executives and lawyers while increasingly burdening her own parents with a mountain of medical bills.
As if that’s not depressing enough, it’s an uncomfortable truth for all involved, on stage and off, that any money spent is good after bad as there is no doubt as to how things will turn out for Grace.
The story is timeless and political, and Gregory’s anti-corporate leanings are clear in the script. U.S. Radium and its officers and lawyers, played by Johnson and Sowards as well as Moran, are a conniving bunch who use an array of legal maneuvering to keep delaying lawsuits until all of the plaintiffs die off. It’s impossible to not draw parallels between the Radium Girls and other 20th-century cases of profits-first corporate greed such as cigarettes and seat belts.
When viewed in retrospect, it’s frustrating to watch such mass ignorance, but it must be put into historical perspective: If Joe DiMaggio smoked, then why wouldn’t every other red-blooded American? And if an international celebrity like Marie Curie touted the aesthetic and medicinal wonders of radium (which she does in the play in the person of Tiffany Silva), it’s equally understandable that the ignorant masses would eat it up. (Which, as we find in “Radium Girls,” leads to the dissolution of jaw bones in the form of oozing black pus. Yuck.)
Director Ginny Davis opted for a minimalist stage set-up. Designer Jeff Eisenmann built an industrial factory-looking main set, and the actors use smaller props and furniture to re-set each scene without breaks. It was an experiment by Davis to keep the action moving, and it works brilliantly.
The play is divided into two acts of 11 and 15 scenes, and to stop the action after each scene would lead to an interminable string of interruptions. It’s about perfect at two hours, including intermission, but I might not feel the same way after another hour or so in the seats of the main stage theatre. Which, incidentally, apparently were designed for middle school students or double amputees. Not a lot of leg room, but don’t let that dissuade you.
While the seats are small, they should all be full for this short run of “Radium Girls.” It’s a quality production, well-acted, entertaining and infuriating. And please don’t blame the actors, or pummel them, tempting as it may be – they’re just doing their jobs.