Radium Girls

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday September 7, 2015

'Radium Girls' plays through Sept. 19 at the Charlestown Working Theatre
'Radium Girls' plays through Sept. 19 at the Charlestown Working Theatre  

Flat Earth Theatre closes its current season -- collectively titled "Progress and Peril" -- with the deeply disturbing historical drama "Radium Girls," a play by D. W. Gregory that recounts corporate abuses in the early years of the 20th century.

The play fits in nicely with the other works Flat Earth offered for its 2014-15 season, including Ted Tally's Arctic adventure "Terra Nova" and Aaron Sorkin's outstanding, and deliberately semi-fictionalized, "The Farnsworth Invention." The timing of the play's production -- it opened over Labor Day Weekend -- is more than appropriate; in this age of zealously anti-worker corporate and political forces, the play's scheduling is a statement in itself.

"Radium Girls" tells a simple, but potent, story, focusing mainly on a worker named Grace Fryer (Erin Eva Butcher) but also giving us a complex portrait of Arthur Roeder (Brigette Hayes), a free-market entrepreneur who, in driving recklessly forward in pursuit of profit, allows the human harm the results to fall from his mind. Roeder's right-hand man and co-investor in the U.S. Radium Corporation is Charlie Lee (Kristen Heider). Roeder's conscience works on him and he ignores it for years, but at least he has a conscience; Charlie is a sort we'd recognize in any era, but especially in the 1980s through right now: Aggressive and unconcerned about the price others must pay for his prosperity.

Grace and her workplace friends are employed as dial painters. They work with luminous paint made from radium, a toxic element that has the property of glowing in the dark. The girls are instructed to bring their brushes to a fine point with their lips; the result is that they become poisoned over time, with horrific medical problems like the literal rotting of their jawbones afflicting them and a slow death the eventual result. Meantime, the company's more educated employees use protective measures.

Production Dramaturg David N. Rogers underscores in the program notes that radium -- as the play makes clear -- "was the 'one weird trick' of its day," his reference being to email spam that claims to offer ways to enhance health through weight loss, among other things. It's true that, for a time, radium enjoyed a reputation as a kind of cure-all and vitality elixir; in truth, it was the worst kind of snake oil, the kind that not only doesn't help but actually has the potential to harm.

But those who knew the truth about radium cared more about money than human health and safety. It took the famous "Radium Girls" court case (and press barrage) to enlighten the public and put legal protections into place for workers harmed by radium exposure and, in decades to come, other injurious workplace practices.

The production's all-female cast of nine do some heavy lifting in this much-populated play, switching fluidly from role to role and gender to gender; all the characters in positions of power, such as corporate higher-ups, doctors, and dentists, are men, but the women are not relegated to secondary status. The cast play both genders with conviction. Butcher and Hayes have the largest roles, but they are ably supported by the others, with Roeder's emotional state gradually disintegrating in a way that makes him, too, a tragic figure, and Grace transforming over time from a fun-loving girl to an impassioned woman who literally won't settle for anything less than her day in court and some reasonable compensation.

The corporation, true to form, draws out the case endlessly and offers a pittance to Grace and the other suing workers to settle, complete with a gag order. It's an offer Grace's mother, ever worried about money and hard-pressed with enormous medical bills, presses her hard to accept, and which her pragmatic fiancee, Tom (Katharine Daly), also encourages her to take.

The play lets us know just how ruthless the male power players were, spreading the idea that female workers who got sick and died were the victims of syphilis, cooking the science by withholding scientific findings, and colluding with profit-driven quacks. (In some ways, the legal and social engineering here resembles the disinformation campaigns we see still going on about climate change or GLBT people.) But the focus remains on two major themes: The dignity of the working class, and the way those initially willing to climb over the bodies of workers to grasp for money and success risk a spiritual rot that's just as dangerous as the physical deterioration radium inflicts on its victims.

Director Lindsay Eagle ensures that the focus stays tight, but no element of the story is left underserved. Sound designer Patrick Greene provides a viscerally unsettling soundtrack. Lighting designer Chris Bocchiaro illuminates the play's action and mood with an effective, sometimes lovely, palette of light. Costume designer Stephanie K. Brownell knows just how to switch an actor from character to character with a simple, effective change of one or two garments. Set designer Debra Reich centers the action on a table and a few chairs; this simple set up easily becomes anything the plays needs, from work bench to boardroom table to domestic anchor.

There are a few minor distractions: A secondary character requires that one of the actors paste on a fake mustache. The effect is unintentionally comic. Elsewhere, an uncertain German accent rattles the suspension of disbelief. Those aren't the things you'll remember, though. In this portrait of a struggle for recognition and decency, the timeless things stand out, none more strongly than a simple sense of right and wrong.

"Radium Girls" continues through Sept. 19 at the Charlestown Working Theatre. For tickets and more information, please visit https://www.flatearththeatre.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.