Radium has a half-life of about 1,600 years, losing half its radioactive potency over that period. If evil and infamy have a half-life, then the tale of the “radium girls” will still be red hot centuries from now. They were the teenagers and young women who ninety years ago painted glow-in-the-dark numbers on clock and watch dials. They used their lips to sharpen brushes dipped in lethal radium paint, instructed to do so by employers who figured it was cheaper to ignore and obfuscate the danger than to confront it honestly.
Maybe Arthur Miller could have summoned up the requisite insight and outrage to properly convey what was done to Catherine Donohue of Ottawa, Illinois—who at the time of her death weighed sixty-five pounds—and to so many others in the name of corporate profits.
But this world premiere musical adaptation of Melanie Marnich’s 2008 play by Jessica Thebus (who also directs) sprinkles saccharine on the radium, and so fails to do justice to the girls’ slow-motion murder. Marnich and Thebus present their protagonists as proto-Rosie the Riveters, who find fulfillment and solidarity in the rhythm of mass production under the oversight of bean-counting managers and corrupt company doctors. That is, until they sicken and are summarily fired, at which point they sue the company for knowingly poisoning them, leading to years of litigation.
Protagonist Catherine (Johanna McKenzie Miller) and her friends—the jokey Pearl (Tiffany Topol), good-girl Frances (Jess Godwin) and tough-but-charming Charlotte (Bri Sudia)—have sweet and strong voices, but lack dimension and depth of emotion. Thebus’ fluent and sometimes poetic lyrics are set to the tunes of Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert, which are mostly formulaic in the soaring diva style.
After years of painting their shining dials, the women themselves began to glow in the dark, merging with the commodities they were making in a real-life industrial horror story. For all its noble intentions, this play further commodifies the girls, turning their stark tale about the nature of capitalism into a feel-good show with commercial possibilities. The struggle and suffering of the radium girls call for a requiem, not a Disney musical. (Hugh Iglarsh)
Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie, (847)673-6300, northlight.org, $25-$78. Through June 14.