The lives of women working in a 1920s radium watch dial factory are literally illuminated by playwright Melanie Marnich in “These Shining Lives,” and the Center Stage world premiere has a humanistic glow that largely compensates for the play’s dimmer shortcomings. Although the clockwork precision with which Marnich constructs her factually derived story gives it a certain predictability, there’s no denying that we care about the medical fate of several young workers in those pre-OSHA days.
Set during a period when women increasingly entered the work force, the play provides an initially comic and ultimately tragic look at how individual women find employment within a system more concerned with profit than safety. That sociological message is implicit within a story mostly comprising banter as the women apply radium to watch dials in a Chicago factory.
Serving as narrator and the most fully individualized character, Catherine Donohue (Emma Joan Roberts) is a perky blonde whose construction worker husband, Tom (Jonathan C. Kaplan), has misgivings about her taking a job and having a relative babysit their two kids. The play alternates between scenes in their home and others showing Catherine at work.
There’s too much exposition-heavy narration by Catherine at the start, but she’s eventually immersed in the production line environment she shares with petite and innocent Pearl (Cheryl Lynn Bowers), prudish Frances (Kate Gleason) and brassy Charlotte (Kelly McAndrew). Their distinct personalities are nicely established through affectionate teasing, so it’s too bad the playwright only gives a sketchy sense of the private lives of Catherine’s co-workers and their boss, Mr. Reed (Erik Lochtefeld).
The play is awkward in other ways, too. Marnich dutifully has the women mention various movie stars and Al Capone-type references to place the action in the Chicago area during the 1920s and early ’30s, but such name-dropping has a check-list quality. Also, this chronology-minded play is occasionally superficial and sloppy with its references. It’s unlikely that women commenting on Catherine’s bobbed hair in 1922 would say she looks like Louise Brooks when Brooks didn’t make her first movie until 1925.
Although it’s generally effective having actors (other than Roberts) double briefly as secondary characters ranging from doctors to journalists, it’s a stretch when those characters are Catherine’s children.
Finely calibrated performances by the female actors and more workmanlike turns from the two men pull us into the story, and it’s quite moving to chart how the characters’ flapper-era optimism is rattled by more than the stock market crash of 1929. As the women’s health deteriorates and they finally take legal action against the company, the play will have all but the most unrepentant capitalists in the audience ready to testify on their behalf.
Considering the many alternating domestic and workplace scenes in this intermissionless short play, director David Schweizer maintains a fluid pace for his cohesive ensemble. His work is facilitated by Alexander Dodge’s spare set design, with minimal props backed by a rear wall whose sliding panels serve as everything from a judge’s bench to a screen for slide projections. The set’s deliberate lack of assertive colors makes Anita Yavich’s period-appropriate costumes stand out, with the women’s simple, brightly colored dresses pointing up their working-girl cheerfulness. And a show about radium needs good lighting, which Justin Townsend sensitively provides.
The relatively modest casting and staging requirements make “These Shining Lives” a viable choice for theaters looking for a poignant but inspirational feminist tale. Audiences may even be sufficiently involved to turn off their glowing electronic devices.