“These Shining Lives,” is a play based on the true story of four women who worked at factory painting watches with a radium compound.
The play focuses on Catherine Donohue who explains the play “begins like a fairy tale, even though it isn’t one,” and “ends like a tragedy, even though it isn’t one.”
The director of the play, Merlaine Angwall, says the story line focuses on the life of Donohue, “how she knew she had radium poisoning and how she went forward with other women to pursue a lawsuit.”
Throughout the course of the play the women face many challenges despite the fact that they are uncharacteristically working a well-paying job during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The job required the women to dab a paintbrush covered in a radium compound between their lips. In doing so they ended up ingesting radium orally and collecting it on their hands and clothes.
The company, Radium Dial, and its president told the women that there was no evidence that radium was harmful; they said it was highly beneficial and even cured a number of diseases.
“The company didn’t want to pay for any damages,” Angwall said. “The women were all very, very sick and the company knew that, but they didn’t want to take responsibility for their illness. The company said, ‘We’re helping these poor souls. They’re lucky to have a job. Why are you biting the hand that feeds you?’”
After a few years the women began to notice their hands glowed in the dark and became concerned. As time went by, the ladies noticed more effects and developed more serious health issues. The company doctors told them not to worry, nothing was wrong and prescribed them aspirin to help.
“The company knew all along that radium would kill them and did nothing to help them.” Angwall said. “They sent them to the company doctor rather than pay for an outside, licensed physician to examine them.”
Eventually after years of searching, the women found a doctor who would help them, and he diagnosed them with radium poisoning. With the help of their attorney, Leonard J. Grossman, a lawsuit was filed against Radium Dial with Donohue as the lead plaintiff. After six years, the women won the case and just twenty-one days later Donohue passed away from the effects of radium.
“Because of Donohue’s persistence, it was a landmark case,” Angwall said.
Franca Barricelli, a dramaturg for the play, said Donohue’s determination was key in winning the case.
“Her will to fight is a characteristic of her,” Barricelli said. “She was cognizant of making a legacy and making a legal change.”
Donohue’s case was shortly after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire case, which was a fire in New York that trapped many garment workers in a warehouse with no means of escape. “With events like the Shirtwaist Fire it forced state and federal government to enact laws for workers’ safety,” Barricelli said.
Cases like this brought to light the extent of responsibility a company has or should have for its workers health and safety.
Barricelli said “These Shining Lives” addresses several complex issues.
“Not only does the show ask what responsibility companies have to its workers, but what responsibility do we have to each other in a civil contract, not individuality, but to ensure the wellbeing of the whole,” Barricelli said. “This case also occurred in a time of personal empowerment for women, and in this hopeful moment hope is taken away by disease and greed.”
Angwall said she always looks forward to putting a cast and crew together, creating the ensemble and the journey to present the story that the playwright tells.
“To me, the best part is seeing how well we can tell that story,” Angwall said.
Cameron Hitchcock, who plays Dr. Dalitsch, said this show presents the actors with multiple challenges.
“These people had lives and we’re representing them,” Hitchcock said. “There’s moments of happiness and moments of sadness, so we need to capture that and present that the way it should be played because we’re living the experience they lived,”
“I’m excited to see where this goes,” Amy Baumgardner, who plays Catherine Donohue, said. “It’s a really powerful play. It’s funny and it’s not funny because it’s so serious so it’s going be cool to see how it all comes together.”
“These Shining Lives” will run from Nov. 19-22 at the Fredric March Theatre.
Visit uwosh.edu/theatre or cal 608-770-4841.
About the UW Oshkosh Theatre Department
The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Theatre Department offers students a program combining personalized attention with a full range of classroom and production opportunities. The theatre major exposes students to all aspects of the theatrical arts, and allows students to focus their training in acting, directing, design, technology and playwriting.