Beowulf Alley Theatre Company
'Radium Girls' recounts early battle for worker safety
Just because you don’t know if something is harmful doesn’t make it safe
Beowulf Alley Theatre’s “Radium Girls,” set in the 1920s and based on factual events, is about ignorance and corporate responsibility. It provides a cautionary tale for our own time: Simply because the science doesn’t exist yet to prove that something is harmful, does not necessarily make it is safe. Think lead paint, thalidomide, even cigarette smoke.
The jam-packed drama, with nine actors portraying 30 roles in more than 25 scenes, is a reminder that under the rule of law, authority requires responsibility.
In the early 20th Century, radioactivity — a term coined by researcher Madame Marie Curie — was poorly understood. Even less understood were the effects of this invisible force on living tissue.
Curie, who discovered and first isolated the element radium, championed the health benefits of radiation even as it was killing her. Her lab notes are still considered too radioactive by today’s standards to be handled safely without protection.
The glow-in-the-dark novelty of radium led to its early use on watch dials. Unaware of the dangers, young women in the factory of the U.S. Radium Corporation diligently painted watch hands, swirling their brushes on their tongues to get a pointed tip for the delicate work.
Understanding of the dangers was so insufficient that workers’ marveled when their shoes and clothing glowed in the dark at home. Whether out of ignorance or greed, the company first ignored warning signs as the women began suffering the toxic effects. Later, the company actively campaigned to deny or reduce its liability for the deadly errors. The workers’ litigation eventually helped establish legal precedents for worker safety.
Actress Nicole M. Scott plays Grace Fryer, a 15-year-old Jersey girl glad to have a good job. She and her co-workers paint hundreds of watches a day, unknowingly ingesting radium with each swirl of the brush. Grace is uncomplicated: She looks forward to marrying her fiancé, Tommy, settling into domestic life and raising a family.
Jared Stokes plays U.S. Radium Corp. President Arthur Roeder, a more complex character. The son of a minister, he gave up his own theological studies to go into the booming and largely unregulated business world of the 1920s. Anxious about success, he seems vaguely surprised by how easy it comes to him. Focused on his white collar duties and his family, he is most comfortable with his fellow executives. He remains aloof and distant to his working-class employees.
To tell the tale, Samantha Cormier, Bree Boyd-Martin, Pat Timm, David Swisher, Michael “Miko” Gifford, Joshua Silvain and Joan O’Dwyer all take multiple roles as friends, family, doctors, reporters, lawyers and scientists.
“Radium Girls” never quite reaches the potential of its dramatic situation
Written by D.W. Gregory and first produced in 2000, “Radium Girls” follows the increasing, and as we know, inevitable decline in the health of the workers, including Grace and her friends, Irene and Kathryn.
A variety of scenes are intercut to establish the zeitgeist of the era — the company’s decision making, Grace’s personal life and the slow course of the litigation. We are a fly on the wall for managerial meetings and family discussions. A visit to America by the double Nobel Prize winning Curie is celebrated. Doctors scratch their heads at the mysterious illness, rumors spread, paranoia increases, accusations hurled. Reporters provide commentary through their coverage of the unexplained cluster of illnesses and later ghoulishly track the dying through their legal and medical nightmares.
Stokes is mesmerizing as Arthur Roeder, a man who never seems full engaged in his own life. While inclined toward high morality, he allows himself to be knocked off track by both investor demands and the overwhelming realization of what his company has done. Throughout, Stokes’ allows just enough good to shine through to make us sympathetic, and just enough weakness to make him culpable for the evil being done in the name of corporate profits.
The final scene, in which he is anguished not only by what he has done, but also by the fact that he cannot remember the girls’ faces, is the most powerful moment of the play.
Scott is slightly less successful as Grace Fryer, not because of skill. but because the character is more flatly drawn. Gregory’s script never allows Grace to express the full anger her circumstances demand. Scott makes her Grace feisty and pragmatic. But since this is primarily a political play, Scott never gets to explore the depths of anguish we would expect. Although Scott kicks it with a strong Jersey accent, her take on the declining health of the character, rather than a steady downhill path, seems to meander.
Overall, the cast does a good job handling their multiple roles. Director Sheldon Metz works hard to keep the energy flowing through the thicket of scene changes, the cast constantly moving props and resetting the stage, sometimes even before the preceding vignette’s conclusion.
“Radium Girls” never quite reaches the potential of its dramatic situation, largely because of the script itself. In fragmenting the story, Gregory treats Grace as a polemic, never giving us enough time to fully appreciate her. By trying to cover so much ground with so many scenes, depth is sacrificed.
In the end, Gregory’s focus on the economic and legal evils of the situation, especially with her simplified portrayals of a greedy corporation and a callous media, sparks mainly political outrage, which may well be her intent. But in so doing, it diminishes our emotional catharsis, our capacity to cry for the ruined lives of those innocent girls.