‘Radium Girls’ caps solid Flat Earth season
CHARLESTOWN – It was a miracle element, seemingly capable of curing cancer.
Radium, it turned out, also had many other uses, some of them industrial, including being used as an ingredient in the paint used to make the faces of watches luminous, visible at night or in the dark.
That prompted the U.S. Radium Corporation to open a plant in New Jersey to produce the watches, and where the young female painters dipped their brushes in the radioactive paint and then used their tongues to make a point on the brush.
An all-female cast captures all the power and punch of the story of those workers, who ingested deadly amounts of radiation, in Flat Earth Theatre’s just-concluded run of “Radium Girls” at the Charlestown Working Theatre.
It capped a fine season for Flat Earth, following acclaimed productions of “Terra Nova” and “The Farnsworth Invention” in its 2015 season titled “Progress and Peril.”
The true events surrounding “Radium Girls” capture a life and death race to see if the surviving workers can find a measure of justice before dying at a young age.
What happened almost a century ago rings true today amid such revelations as the National Football League knowing more than it let on when it came to concussions and brain damage or General Motors’ ignition switch scandal.
As Grace Fryer, the young woman who quits school at the age of 15 to help support her family and eventually spends four years at U.S Radium, Erin Eva Butcher gives the character youthful grace and innocence before she is eventually worn down by the reality of her situation.
Still, she is gritty and determined to hold on to her dignity while holding the company accountable for its actions.
There is a heart-rending scene when Grace turns down a minuscule settlement offer from the company as her mother, saddled in debt, sobs.
Katharine Daly is fine as Tom Kreider, Grace’s boyfriend, who is loyal to her until the illness and uncertain future fractures their relationship.
As the plant manager and eventually U.S. Radium president, Bridgette Hayes’ Arthur Roeder is no cardboard cutout villain. He forsook the ministry for the boardroom and prided himself on his ethical approach to the job, but he had a chance to stop what was happening and took the easy way out, preserving profits at the expense of lives.
He is finally forced to confront the devastation he has wrought in confrontations with major stockholder Charlie Lee (Kristen Heider) and his wife Diane (Marty Mason) in which he attempts to cling to his last shreds of humanity.
There is also solid support from Kamelia Aly as Katherine Wiley, the head of the Consumer League, which takes up the case of the stricken women; Kathleen C. Lewis as Kathryn Staub, Grace’s co-worker and close friend; Katie Bond as Dr. Von Sochocky, the scientific head of the company whose involvement leads to his own doom; and Paula Ferrer in a variety of roles.
The events of “Radium Girls” occurred at a time when there were far fewer protections for workers than there are today, but the scandal helped prompt reforms in worker protection.
Director Lindsay Eagle ratchets up the suspense, aided by Patrick Greene’s sound of deadly Geiger counter readings. Eventually a smoking gun – make that several smoking guns – will emerge, and the doomed women will find their stories heard and a achieve a small measure of justice.
The Flat Earth Theatre production of D.W. Gregory’s “The Radium Girls.” Directed by Lindsay Eagle. Performed at the Charlestown Working Theatre. Flatearththeatre.com