Northlight's 'Shining Lives' a moving tribute to courageous women

  • Factory workers for Ottawa's Radium Dial Company, unaware of the poison inside them, enjoy an afternoon at the shore in the moving chamber musical "Shining Lives: A Musical," in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre. The production stars Tiffany Topol, clockwise from left, Jess Godwin, Bria Sudia and Johanna McKenzie Miller.

    Factory workers for Ottawa's Radium Dial Company, unaware of the poison inside them, enjoy an afternoon at the shore in the moving chamber musical "Shining Lives: A Musical," in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre. The production stars Tiffany Topol, clockwise from left, Jess Godwin, Bria Sudia and Johanna McKenzie Miller. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Catherine (Johanna McKenzie Miller), second from right, and her fellow Radium Dial Company workers Charlotte (Bria Sudia), right, Pearl (Tiffany Topol), left, and Frances (Jess Godwin) decide to fight the company that subjected them to radium poisoning during the 1920s in "Shining Lives: A Musical," in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.

    Catherine (Johanna McKenzie Miller), second from right, and her fellow Radium Dial Company workers Charlotte (Bria Sudia), right, Pearl (Tiffany Topol), left, and Frances (Jess Godwin) decide to fight the company that subjected them to radium poisoning during the 1920s in "Shining Lives: A Musical," in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre in Skokie. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • A new job means Catherine (Johanna McKenzie Miller) can afford to give her husband, Tom (Alex Goodrich), a pocket watch in "Shining Lives: A Musical," by writer/lyricist/director Jessica Thebus and composers Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert.

    A new job means Catherine (Johanna McKenzie Miller) can afford to give her husband, Tom (Alex Goodrich), a pocket watch in "Shining Lives: A Musical," by writer/lyricist/director Jessica Thebus and composers Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • For Catherine (Johanna McKenzie Miller), left, getting a job means more financial security and fulfillment outside the home in "Shining Lives: A Musical," inspired by the real-life tragedy of Ottawa's "radium girls." Northlight Theatre's world premiere also stars Bria Sudia, left, Jess Godwin, Matt Mueller and Tiffany Topol.

    For Catherine (Johanna McKenzie Miller), left, getting a job means more financial security and fulfillment outside the home in "Shining Lives: A Musical," inspired by the real-life tragedy of Ottawa's "radium girls." Northlight Theatre's world premiere also stars Bria Sudia, left, Jess Godwin, Matt Mueller and Tiffany Topol. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 
Posted5/21/2015 6:00 AM

"Work that pays you well, costs something," warns a character in "Shining Lives: A Musical."

For some young women working at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, during the 1920s and 1930s, the price was their lives.

 

Their real-life tragedy unfolds in "Shining Lives: A Musical," a bittersweet, emotional tale of spirit and courage in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre in Skokie.

Based on Melanie Marnich's 2008 play "These Shining Lives" (which Northlight workshopped in 2007, a year before its Baltimore premiere), this chamber musical tells the story of the mostly female Radium Dial Company employees who painted the faces of watches and clocks with luminous, radium-laced paint. Assured by management the paint was harmless -- medicinal even -- the workers twirled paintbrushes between their lips to get a sharp tip. In the process, they ingested the poison that ate away at their bones and eventually claimed their lives.

The elegiac "Shining Lives: A Musical" is their memorial, evoked in part by the poppies present in the opening number. It's a testament not just to the women's suffering, but to their courage and determination to hold accountable the company officials who deceived and disparaged them.

What a moving testament it is.

The artless, eloquent score by composers Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert (played by the actors and conducted by music director Chuck Larkin) moves from melodic to dissonant. Swing-inspired tunes like the catchy "Lip. Dip. Paint" -- where veteran dial painters instruct newcomer Catherine Donohue (Johanna McKenzie Miller) -- give way to anguished, a cappella whisperings and near-operatic anthems where the stricken women ask themselves: "What if we stand? What if we fight?"

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Complementing the score is the deeply personal book and lyrics by writer/lyricist/director Jessica Thebus. She stages the show with unvarnished simplicity on Scott Davis' raked, nearly bare stage -- strikingly illuminated by JR Lederle -- set against an angled factory window and an enormous timepiece. It's a stark reminder of time slipping away and an ideal backdrop for Stephan Mazurek's revealing projections.

While it addresses workplace safety and workers' rights, employer responsibility and corporate indifference, "Shining Lives" is really a celebration of these working-class crusaders whose struggle led to improved safety standards and established the right of workers to sue for injuries and illnesses incurred on the job.

The story centers on Catherine (the winsome Miller, whose frank, deeply felt performance is the production's linchpin). She's a young wife and mother of infant twins who in 1922 takes a job at the Radium Dial Company, despite the warning from her husband, Tom (Alex Goodrich), that "work that pays you well, costs something."

The money, up to $8 a day, is a powerful incentive. For Catherine and her co-workers -- the dynamic Bria Sudia's outspoken Charlotte, Jess Godwin's demure Frances and Tiffany Topol's chipper Pearl -- the money means financial independence. While working makes them realize they can derive self-worth and fulfillment outside the domestic arena, their euphoria -- beautifully expressed in the exuberant "Things That Shine" -- is short-lived.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Suffering from unexplained bleeding and aching limbs and jaws, they confront their boss (Matt Mueller), who insists the workplace is safe while reminding them of other unemployed women looking for work. The company doctor (Erik Hellman) prescribes aspirin as their health declines. After a few years, when they can no longer perform their jobs, they're fired. They sue. And they prevail, after years of company appeals. By then, it's too late.

Watching the quartet accept their diagnoses with quiet resignation moved me to tears. It's among several gut-wrenching moments, beautifully played by Miller, Sudia, Godwin and Topol, whose acting is as exquisite as their harmonies. Another superbly realized scene begins with the women acknowledging that their company and community prefer they stay "Quiet." An ode to the powerless, it transitions into another song, a potent, heartbreaking anthem for the empowered, as Catherine and her friends resolve to stand and fight not just for themselves but for those who come after them.

I won't spoil the inspiring final scene except to say it's a poignant tribute to the "Radium Girls" who paid the ultimate price.

As for the actual Radium Dial factory, it was demolished in 1968 and the debris used as fill-in throughout the area. The EPA later found 16 commercial and residential areas in and around Ottawa contaminated with radioactive material from the factory. Designated a Superfund site, the area was targeted for cleanup in 1986. According to the EPA, 12 of the affected areas have since been decontaminated at a cost of $56 million. The cleanup is ongoing.

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