On Saturday I took in a powerful matinee performance of Melanie Marnich’s “These Shining Lives” directed by faculty member Eric Bishop. The screenplay is set against the backdrop of the roaring 1920’s in the time of the newly independent factory working woman. The production is the true story of the Radium girls, Catherine (Catie) Donahue, Charlotte Purcell, Pearl Payne and Francis O’Connell who lived and worked in Ottawa Illinois, at the Radium Dial Company. Over the course of the time between the mid 1920’s to the 1930’s the women come to realize the radium paint they had been working with daily has given them terminal bone cancer.
The first act opens with Catie Donahue played beautifully by Emily Neifert, getting ready for her first day of work. The scene introduces Catie’s doting husband Tom Donahue, effectively played by Alex Smith, and shows the audience the kind loving nature of their relationship. Moving through act one Catie builds a relationship with three women Frances, Charlotte and Pearl, (played by Sawyer Henderson, Shelby Caughron, and Brianna Russavage) as the women find their independence in the workplace and become sisters.
As act one draws to a close our protagonist becomes aware that something is amiss with her health. She knows that there is a connection between the radium paint and her condition. As the women become ill the Radium Dial Company employs their own doctors and dismisses their sickness as arthritis. The scenes between these four ailing women are deep, thoughtful and inspired. Marnick’s exchange with Smith are equally powerful as a husband watches helplessly as the woman he loves more than anything deteriorate before his eyes.
The latter part of the performance is a study in the best and worst of human nature. There is an exchange between Tom Donahue (Smith) and Mr. Reed (Hayden Sproul) that shows these two extremes. The scene opened up and let the audience take part in Tom’s loss as it were our own.
Onstage, there was a beautiful lack of clutter. The set was simple but effective and let the acting shine through on its own merit. Performance wise These Shining Lives connected on all levels. The emotional aspect of the story was masterfully delivered leaving very few dry eyes in the building.
The technical crew, headed up by Kellie Kissinger did a wonderful job with sound, lighting and stagecraft. These Shining Lives was truly a triumph worthy of Broadway accolades.