Cooking up a theatrical event that intertwines labor law and women’s social history, and is “based on a true story,” is not an easy recipe. Season it with too much artifice and the play becomes arch and remote. Oversalt with facts and audiences feel trapped in a lecture hall. And if you cover the real-life situations with too much sugar, you run the risk of it becoming twee and overly sympathetic.
Despite a wonderful presentation served up by the folks at Curtain Call Theatre, you can sadly taste each and every ingredient in Melanie Marnich’s unaffecting and ultimately bland drama “These Shining Lives.”
Fairy tale gone awry
It is the story of female factory workers whom history has labeled the “Radium Girls.” In the 1920s and ’30s, these young women painted the faces of luminous watches and clocks, unknowingly becoming early victims of radium poisoning.
‘These Shining Lives’
WHERE: Curtain Call Theatre, 210 Old Loudon Road, Latham
WHEN: Through March 23
HOW MUCH: $23
MORE INFO: 877-7529, www.curtaincalltheatre.com
Set in Chicago and Ottawa, Ill., home of the Radium Dial Co., the play outlines the true story of Catherine Donohue (here played by the brilliant Dana Goodknight), from when she began working at the factory with the excitement of a newly liberated woman entering the work-force for the first time in 1922 through the litigation she pursued into the late 1930s.
Catherine tells us at the top of Act 1: “This story starts as a fairy tale,” but a fairy tale in reverse — it starts with “happily ever after.” Catherine has a perfect prince of a husband in Tom (Paul Dederick). Tom makes dinner, watches the kids and supports his wife’s choice of entering the working world. It is after Catherine makes this move her story goes Grimm.
At times Marnich’s script seems to try very hard to keep this real-life tragedy from becoming too bleak. So she peppers the dialogue with perky banter; “Gossip is the devil’s radio,” states Catherine’s religious workmate Frances (Sarah Wasserbach). “It’s my favorite station,” sasses back Charlotte (Tara Burnham). Or she lumbers Pearl (Lydia Nightingale), the most sympathetic of this group of innocents, with an endless supply of groan-worthy puns and jokes, none of which are worth repeating here.
There is an admirable effort by the playwright to keep the play balanced and upright so that it is not capsized by gloom. But the characters appear like residents of a fairy tale — simplistically good or evil — and how is that appropriate for a story that is “truly” horrifying?
Slapping a “based on a true story” label on a play doesn’t create honest emotion. Characters appear to be conflicted, but we don’t see any of that struggle. The saddest part of the evening is that this tale of corporate greed lacks a real dramatic emotional core. It’s a morality tale without slap.
What the script lacks, the cast hides well with effective performances. Goodknight, saddled with a weak story arc, dodges a style of hurt and wounded acting with her thoughtful and tender performance. Wasserbach, Nightingale and Burnham are all a delight marking each victim with just the right amount of humor and humanity. But it is Dederick who nearly steals the show. Expertly juggling three roles (two doctors as well as Catherine’s husband) the actor pumps genuineness into the evening that is a true gift. Dederick’s scene (as Tom) with Ted Zeltner (As the girls’ foreman Mr. Reed) seethes with just the right mix of controlled questioning and rage. Marvelous work!
Despite my quibbles with the quality of the script, high praise must be heaped on the artistic forces at Curtain Call for mounting such a well crafted production and their continuing efforts to take on and present new work.