Mortality, Dignity and Change: A Review of SCDS’ “Radium Girls“
The first thing we notice is the ticking. Before the stage lights snap on, before there’s anything at all to see, that sound is all we get. Out of context, it’s intriguing and a little eerie. As the play develops, the recurring motif of the ticking watch, brought in after fades to black during select scene breaks and set changes, becomes touchingly, exquisitely agonizing.
It makes perfect sense –– Stern College Dramatics Society (SCDS)’s “Radium Girls,” written by D.W. Gregory and directed by Prof. Reuven Russell, tells the barely believable true story of a group of female factory workers employed by the U.S. Radium Corporation in the years following WWI to paint the dials of wristwatches with luminescent, radium-based paint. The otherwise healthy young women begin falling ill and dying mysterious deaths, which they eventually learn stems from their exposure to the radioactive substance to which they were dangerously exposed as they dutifully applied it to the watch faces. What follows is a vicious battle in the courtroom and the court of public opinion between the factory owners and the workers fighting for compensation and accountability.
We meet “radium girls” Grace (Rachel Gilinksi), Irene (Baila Landa) and Kathryn (Leah Goykadosh) at their benches in the New Jersey factory, painting watches, and, while manager Mrs. Macneil (Sara Nava Weiss)’s back is turned, using the gleaming paint to color their nails, clothes and even teeth. Evidently, radium, the cure-all tonic of the age, wasn’t known to be at all dangerous. Unless, well, certain people knew certain things but elected to withhold certain information to protect certain corporate interests. Primary candidates include former U.S. Radium President and paint inventor Dr. Von Sochocky (Amalya Teitelbaum), current President Arthur Roeder (Elisheva Hirsch) and Vice President Charlie Lee (Carolina Churba).
Amid international radium frenzy powered by the element’s matriarch, celebrity scientist Marie Curie (Mikki Treitel –– wielding a hilarious Polish/French/German accent), the painters’ health begins to deteriorate. What starts with toothaches and ulcers spirals into crumbling bones and women’s jaws literally falling out of their faces. Irene is the first to die. The company blames it on Syphilis, but her colleagues begin to realize there’s more to the story, especially as their symptoms continue to parallel hers. Gilinksi and Goykadosh both bring a fire to their characters as they struggle with how to react to Irene’s death, and the next steps they should take. Grace is at first hesitant, willing to look for a settlement and an easy way out. But when Kathryn’s condition worsens, Grace realizes she’s the only one left and resolves to expose the sins of U.S. Radium to the world.
We expect the company men to be aware and scheming this whole time. We’re shocked, therefore, when President Roeder and his wife (Treitel) sit down one night for a drink … of radium water. Even they didn’t know it was deadly! As the show progresses, that information of course comes to light, and the Roeders dispose of their crate of the stuff stored in a kitchen cupboard. But it wasn’t immediate, and that journey to realization is fraught with anger, dismay and disappointment. Hirsch and Treitel are masters at navigating that husband-wife relationship, full of pain, hope and shattered expectations.
Adjusting expectations is also how Grace and her fiancée Tom must ride out these troubling developments. Burning through their wedding money to pay for Grace’s fruitless medical procedures, they squabble about big and small things with the weight of mortality hanging over their heads. Gilinkski’s Grace and Treitel’s Tom artfully laugh and cry their way across a tense but beautiful relationship. A scene where Grace pleads with Tom to choose wallpaper for their baby’s room, both of them knowing there never will be a baby, stuck with me long after the curtain call. Tom’s practicality and problem-solving clash with Grace’s idealism and drive, and the characters learn from and about each other as they face down an impossible abyss.
Crew members shine and actors delight throughout the performance. Miri Biderman’s minimalist set and charming period costumes, Vered Kaplan’s stark lighting and Gillian Herszage’s aforementioned fantastic sound design enhance the experience and help create a realistic, kitchen-sink world on the stage of the Schottenstein Theater. Equally impressive are cast members’ jumping between roles and immersing themselves in wildly different characters: Leah Goykadosh brings the audience to tears as the ardent, exasperated Kathryn, and to jeers as the heedless, two-faced Dr. Knef. Baila Landa thrives as the diaphanous Irene and the crusading Miss Wiley, while Carolina Churba fully assimilates the Machiavellian Charlie Lee and the virtuous Dr. Drinker. Sara Nava Weiss, Shani Mizrahi and Noa Berman similarly juggle diverse roles and deliver a performance whose scale transcends the actual size of the cast assembled.
In a way, the show unfurls like an old-school horror movie, characters dropping like flies as the angel of death closes in tighter. But while its contents oscillate between slasher film and legal drama, its heart is intensely human. Rachel Gilinkski delivers a magnificent emotional performance as tragic, reluctant heroine Grace, infusing every act with pathos and endurance. Elisheva Hirsch dexterously plays president Arthur Roeder as he grapples with the business and personal challenges posed by the workers’ plight, each scene revealing more and more dimension to the tortured character. Prof. Russell’s direction maximizes the cast, using artful placement and blocking to hint at multilayered relationships and uneven power dynamics.
“Radium Girls” is a play about a specific moment in history, but its themes are universal. Capitalism and feminism are put under its art deco microscope, along with workers’ rights and modern mass media. As she prepares to take her story public, Grace is told that “[people don’t] have much sympathy for an angry woman.” Also particularly resonant in our pandemic age is the play’s exploration of medical authority. “Believe the science,” one doctor tells the radium-poisoned women. “Radium has nothing to do with what’s ailing you. You must eat more fresh fruit. And raw meat.”
An apple a day, though, can’t put off the inevitable. It can’t stop time. SCDS’s “Radium Girls” is a requiem for lives lost at the hands of that cruel reality, but also a celebration of those women and the change they brought about through courage, grit and no small amount of desperation. While the stage lights burn, its story lauds their lives, and when they blink out, its haunting ticking mourns their deaths. Their days blew by ever too fast, “Radium Girls” cries. But oh how brightly they shined.
Radium Girls is playing at the Schottenstein Theater from Dec. 19 through Dec. 23. Tickets can be purchased here.
Photo Caption: The cast of “Radium Girls” at the curtain call
Photo Credit: The Commentator