Radium Girls,” the compelling new drama by Dolores Whiskeyman, reveals a tragic chapter in New Jersey history. The workshop production at the adventurous Playwrights Theater documents the true story of factory employees victimized by contaminated luminous paint. The playwright lays out the facts with historical accuracy, descriptive simplicity and graphic candor.
Docudrama recalls actual events at the U.S. Radium Corp. in Orange, where, during the 1920s, young women were engaged to paint watches with a glow-in-the-dark product manufactured with a powder and adhesive paste laced with radium. In order to keep their paint brushes sharply pointed to obtain speed and accuracy, the girls were instructed to moisten the bristles by inserting them in their mouths.
The tedious work led to cramped fingers, backaches and eventually bleeding mouths, loss of teeth, the gradual crumbling deterioration of jawbones and, for seven of the girls, death. The demise of one promiscuous employee is blamed on syphilis and dismissed, prompting a concerned worker to begin a more aggressive investigation into the true cause of the deaths.
Add Grace Farley (Mary Bacon) to the growing list of real-life crusading women (Karen Silkwood, Erin Brockovich) whose stories have been dramatized. An afflicted employee who believes her illness is the direct result of the ingested radium, she is initially discouraged by poor legal advice and a company-hired hack and bogus medical consultant (who diagnosed the girls as having a vitamin deficiency). Farley abandons marriage plans as her health deteriorates and aggressively pursues financial support for the afflicted employees. Despite both negative and supportive national exploitation by the press and modest compensation from the company, Farley’s course is inevitably tragic.
The character of Grace Farley is a composite of three real life victims, and Bacon beautifully balances the youthful and perky spirit of the young bride to be with the courageous resignation of the woman suffering her inevitable demise.
T. Cat Ford is effective in the roles of a bullying office manger and the concerned wife of the troubled boss, but in a gender switch as a manipulative, blackmailing dentist, she is uncomfortably out of sorts.
Daren Kelly provided solid support as the compassionate and remorseful employer who drinks “energizing” radium water. Contending that he is not running a sweatshop and offering decent working conditions for the girls, he neglects to read the medical reports reflecting growing concern over radium use.
Karl Kenzler is fine as Farley’s ardent suitor. Sarah Winkler cameos boldly as both a victim and a rather naive trial witness who consumes Radithor daily as an invigorating tonic and endorses its use.
A powerful coda finds a remorseful Roeder at the gravesides of his former employees, while his bored and indifferent companion casually lights a cigarette. It appears that a century has passed and people are still putting poison in their mouths. It’s a none too subtle but bracing final comment.
Multiple role changes — there are over 30 characters — and cross-gender perfs as board members, reporters, attorneys and physicians are dizzying and not always too effective. Femmes chomping cigars at board meetings and a none too amusing actor in drag as Madame Curie simply robs the piece of its dignity. The play really loses its thrust finding broadly comic crossovers with scientists, salesmen and shopkeepers scurrying about in quick, minor, modestly ineffective costume changes. A doomed young girl in a wheelchair wearing high heels is only one jarring and distracting note in a drama that follows a passionate and intelligent course.
One can easily chalk up these problems to a vital and promising work-in-progress, yet director Joseph Megel could easily have avoided them had he not settled for cartoon character transitions. On the plus side, Megel has paced the plight of his unfortunate victims with an effective sense of tragic urgency and grave desperation.
A wide, serviceable set by Jim Bazewicz, serves as factory loft, home and courtroom. Gloomy, plain and functional, it boasts the intimidating darkness of the working class ’20s.
Whiskeyman’s drama deserves consideration for further regional production and development, and its steely and often unnerving subject carries a bold cinematic thrust.