Catherine Donahue was an ordinary woman of the 1920s. She had a husband and two children. Her daily duties included laundry, dinner and bedtime stories. But times were tough. Rather than let her husband work himself to death, she decided to find a job. U.S. Radium Company was her salvation and ultimately her end.
Presented by UW-Green Bay Theatre and written by Melanie Marnich, “These Shining Lives” recounts the heroic tale of four women who lost their lives at the hands of their employer. Showcased Feb. 28, March 1, 2 and 6 through 9 at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts, “These Shining Lives” whisks audience members back to the roaring ‘20s, a time of empowerment and change for women. They could vote, smoke and drink. For the first time in U.S. history, daughters had a chance to better themselves and wives could contribute financially to their households.
While the pay was decent, no amount of money could justify the pain suffered by the workers of U.S. Radium Company.
Their job was relatively simple- paint glow-in-the-dark numbers on watch and clock faces. To make the paint glow, the company used radium, common in the 20s. Many believed radium had healing effects, and it was used in elixirs and pills.
“Some people even bathed in radium-infused water,” said John Mariano, play director and associate professor of theatre.
As time went on, it became apparent these assumptions were false. Radium causes necrosis, localized decaying of tissue.
Because the paint brushes lost their shape easily, painters were instructed to shape the bristles with their tongue and lips. After a prolonged amount of time workers began to experience body aches and pains. Some women lost their teeth and jaw bones. Overall, the bones of the women deteriorated.
The Radium Girls chose to stand, hand in hand, and take on the company. After six appeals, Catherine, one of the workers, won, not just for herself, but for workers across the U.S.
“The relationships they made while working together really gave them the strength to take the company on,” Mariano said.
The play focuses on these relationships. Catherine, Charlotte, Frances and Pearl sat next to each other for eight hours a day, five days a week for six years. They grew to respect and love one another. These women stood together in happy times and sad, drawing strength from their friendship when they could not find it within themselves.
The six-member cast played multiple roles and accounted for 17 characters total. Stephanie Frank played the resilient Catherine. Frances, the quiet member of the Radium Girls, was portrayed by Abigail Lee. The sassy Charlotte was played by Chelsea Crevcoure. Erin Sunisa was Pearl, the not-so-great joke teller of the group. Andrew Delaurelle was Catherine’s supportive husband Tom, and Randall J. Tranowski filled the role of the evil Mr. Reed, supervisor at U.S. Radium.
“These Shining Lives” is a heartfelt story. During some scenes ,audience members laughed and at others sniffles could be heard throughout the Weidner Center.
“There were so many moments that got to me,” said Cody Van Ruden, freshman theatre major. “The part where Catherine and Charlotte sat down together and talked of their friendship, their strength and their problems really struck me.”
The Radium Girls were the first women in the U.S. to publicly stand up and fight. They showed people that just because they were women didn’t mean they were disposable.
“We’re very proud to be able to do this play,” Mariano said. “It’s educational and based on a true story. We’re telling a story that doesn’t usually get told and putting a human face on it. It allows students to walk in their shoes.”
Catherine said her biggest fear is to be invisible, to die and be forgotten. Through “These Shining Lives,” the bravery of the Radium Girls shines on.