The Radium Girls painted watch faces with a deadly radioactive compound. These Shining Lives recounts their struggle for justice

click to enlarge The so-called "Radium Girls" proved to be unlikely heroes. - PHIL CORLESS PHOTO
Phil Corless photo
The so-called "Radium Girls" proved to be unlikely heroes.

In 1922, an exciting new opportunity came to the women of Ottawa, Illinois. The Radium Dial Company opened a factory and began hiring well-paid female employees by the dozen. Their job was to paint the glow-in-the-dark markings on clock and watch faces using a luminescent material that contained powdered radium, the remarkable elemental metal Marie Curie had isolated about a decade earlier.

What no one told these women was that the radium-based paint was highly radioactive. Simply touching it with bare hands would have been incredibly toxic. Yet the Radium Dial Company went so far as to encourage the painters to point the tips of their brushes with their lips. The practice caused them to ingest small quantities of the paint with every watch face — around 250 per day.

Before long, many workers developed health problems. Their jaws began to decay. They became anemic. Their bones fractured. The company, likely aware of the root cause, brushed their ailments and suspicions aside, forcing the women to solicit help from the few outside doctors and lawyers who didn't turn them away out of fear or indifference.

The story of the Radium Girls, as they became known, has been told in songs, poetry, films, fiction and plays, including Melanie Marnich's These Shining Lives. Her 2008 docudrama centers on the women who suffered at the hands of the company and fought for retribution as their bodies failed.

Maria Stromberg plays narrator and protagonist Catherine Donohue in a new production of These Shining Lives at Lake City Playhouse. Donohue was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that sought to hold the Radium Dial Company to account.

"At the beginning when she comes out, she's already dead or dying. And she's telling you the story, walking you through these scenes of her life," Stromberg says. Those early scenes are full of joy and optimism as the factory work offers the prospect of a good income and independence. But things inevitably start to take a darker turn.

"To me, it's like watching this character come to grips with what's happened to her and then realize that she can transform that into fighting for everyone else who's been hurt by this. And that she actually accomplishes something is what gives it that thread of hope. It wasn't meaningless."

Donohue wasn't alone in her personal transformation or her fight for justice, and the play reflects that. She's surrounded by the friends she made at Radium Dial: outspoken Charlotte Purcell (Monica Thomas), upright Frances O'Connell (Sadie Russell) and easygoing Pearl Payne (Anya Kleinworth).

"Catherine is our interpreter and our main thread, so it's almost like we're taking this journey through her head," says Kristin Kilmer, the show's director.

This is the first live theater production Kilmer has directed in more than two decades. Returning to the stage for These Shining Lives and its "surreal, dreamlike" narrative framework has been what she describes as "a semi-organic experience."

Whatever enhancements costumes, lighting and set design might offer, the thing Kilmer is emphasizing is the "humanity" of the Radium Girls and those who supported them. Among those supporters are pro bono lawyer Leonard Grossman (Ricky St. Martin), the physician Dr. Dalitsch (Travis Cook) and, above all, Catherine's husband Tom (Brandon Miller).

"What keeps this out of the macabre and the tragic and the really sad is their relationship," Kilmer says. "You kind of fall in love with those two as they fall in love."

While it might seem hard to draw positives from such a tragic tale of injustice, Stromberg says there are beautiful moments in the story and beauty in the way it's told. She points to one of her character's closing lines: "Time was kind, after all."

"That's the amazing thing and the soul of the play. Time is in a very literal sense their enemy. These watches they're painting are killing them. But at the same time it gave them the opportunity to be together, to make these friendships and to rise to this level of heroism. That was also a kindness." ♦

These Shining Lives • Feb. 21-Mar. 8; Thu-Sat at 7:30 pm, Sun at 2 pm • $22 • Lake City Playhouse • 1320 E. Garden Ave., Coeur d'Alene • lakecityplayhouse.org • 208-676-7529

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About The Author

E.J. Iannelli

E.J. Iannelli is a Spokane-based freelance writer, translator, and editor whose byline occasionally appears here in The Inlander. One of his many shortcomings is his inability to think up pithy, off-the-cuff self-descriptions.