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updated: 4/5/2013 9:02 PM

Aurora University to stage 'These Shining Lives' April 12-20

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Al Benson

Aurora University's theatre department will stage "These Shining Lives" at 7:30 p.m. on April 12-13 and April 17-20 in Perry Theatre at Stephens Hall, 1305 Kenilworth Place in Aurora.

"Lives," authored by playwright and HBO and Showtime television writer Melanie Marnich, focuses on Catherine Donohue and her friends, a group of women sickened by working with radioactive materials at the former Radium Dial Co. in Ottawa, Ill.

Worker health problems led to a court case and eventual closing of the company.

The public is invited. Admission is free.

Director Kelly Roush of St. Charles, assistant professor of theater, will lead a post-show discussion on Saturday, April 13. A post-show discussion with the cast is scheduled for Friday, April 19.

Roush said, "The play chronicles the strength and determination of Catherine Donohue and her friends, women considered expendable in their day, their true story and its continued resonance.

"The show touches on several topics--worker's rights, industrial ethics, treatment of women workers, and how the press affects public opinion."

The cast includes students Meagan Kelly and Samantha Chmara, Plainfield, Ill.; Emily Karnick, Crystal Lake, Ill,; Patricia Liu, Bloomington, Ill.; Kelsey Burlington, Yorkville, Ill.; Pietro Alfano, Spring Valley, Ill.; Nik Kmiecik, West Chicago, Ill.; Cody Covganka, Huntley, Ill.; Trey Gonzalez, Tampa, Fla.; and Elijah McNutt, Chicago.

Radium Dial Co. background

The division of Standard Chemical Co. opened an art studio in Chicago in 1918 to paint clock faces for Western Clock Manufacturing, called Westclox, a leading national clock maker.

In 1920, Radium moved the studio to Peru, Ill., and in 1922 moved it to Ottawa, Ill., where it operated to 1934.

More than 1,000 women painted clock faces using radioactive, radium-based paints.

The women were not told of health hazards while they created more than 1 million clock faces each year.

Radium Dial employed a regular rotation of about 100 workers, mostly young women, to paint the numbers of the clock faces.

For the time, such employment was considered the "top job for a poor working girl."

The average weekly pay was about $5 a week.

Exceptional dial painters could make up to $40 a week. There were very few other jobs where a woman could make more money in the 1920s.

To achieve the distinctive glow, the painters used a mixture of radium bromide and zinc sulfide that was combined with an oil adhesive.

The paint applied yellow, but glowed green in the dark.

The paint was applied with very fine brushes that required pointing to do very detailed work.

Painters pointed the brushes by rolling the brush tips between their lips, ingesting paint each time they pointed a brush.

During training, painters were told that the small amount of radium ingested was not dangerous.

Trainers even ate a spoonful of paint to prove that it was harmless.

News arrived in Ottawa in 1928 about painters' health problems and a court case involving women working in a similar factory in Orange County, N.J.

Joseph Kelly, Sr., Radium Dial president , issued a statement to dismiss dangers of the company's paint.

He also implied that the firm would close the Ottawa studio if similar problems happened there.

For a short time, Kelly even opened another studio in Streator, Ill., to reinforce the threat to close the Ottawa studio and take away those jobs.

After 12 years in Ottawa, the Radium Dial Co. closed in 1934.

With employees' health problems and deaths rising, and legal issues mounting, Kelly was ousted by the company stockholders on charges of trying to make the firm's stock worthless.

Within three days of his firing, Kelly and a few associates established another studio four blocks away from the Ottawa operation.

In a short time, the new company took over contracts with Westclox and other companies and forced Radium Dial out of business.

Establishing the new company was a way of limiting the liability of Radium Dial in any court cases.

At the time of the Catherine's court case, Radium Dial was only required to post a $10,000 bond since it was no longer an Illinois company.

Laws of the day limited the maximum money awarded to the workers to $10,000.


Melanie Marnich is an American playwright and television writer best known for her work on the HBO drama "Big Love," which earned her a Writers Guild of America (WGA) Award nomination in 2010.

She is currently a writer on the Showtime series, "The Big C."

Marnich joined the crew of "Big Love" as a staff writer for the third season in 2009. She wrote the episode "Come, Ye Saints."

Marnich was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award for episodic drama at the February 2010 ceremony for the episode.

She was promoted to story editor for the fourth season in 2010 and wrote the episode "The Mighty and Strong."

Marnich also frequently writes plays for American regional theaters.

Marnich has been a resident playwright at New Dramatists in New York City since 2005. Her most recent plays include "Quake," "Blur," "Tallgrass Gothic," "Calling All," "Beautiful Again," and "The Storm Coming."

Blur received its world premiere Off Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club and also won the Francesca Primus Prize from Denver Center Theatre. Quake and Tallgrass Gothic premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Her play, "A Sleeping Country," which premiered at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, was awarded the Mickey Kaplan New American Play Prize. She also received the Carbonell Award for Best New Work of the Year play in 2007 for her play, "Cradle of Man."

Marnich's adaptation of TV talk-show host Katie Couric's book, "The Brand New Kid," premiered at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in November 2006.

Her awards include two McKnight Advancement Grants and two Jerome Fellowships from The Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, the Samuel Goldwyn Award, an Ohio Arts Council Grant, the Otis Guernsey New Voices Playwriting Award and the Melvoin Award from Northlight Theatre of Chicago.

Her plays have been produced or developed at New York's Public Theater, London's Royal Court Theatre, Guthrie Theater, Arena Stage, Portland Center Stage, The Actors Studio, Geva Theatre, Hyde Park Theatre, American Theater Company, HERE and Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

She has received commissions from the Kennedy Center, Guthrie Theater, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, La Jolla Playhouse, Arena Stage and South Coast Repertory.

She is married to the American playwright Lee Blessing.



Al Benson