This winter, San Anselmo’s Archie Williams High School students will take to the stage with a gripping Peregrine Players performance of none other than D.W. Gregory’s dramatic and tragic historical play, Radium Girls.
Radium Girls tells the story of the very real women who tragically lost their health and then their lives due to exposure to the visually radiant but ultimately poisonous element, radium, which was briefly used in paints, beauty products and more before being banned for its deadly radioactivity.
The Archie Williams High School performance of Radium Girls, told by the Peregrine Players, took shape under the guidance of director Jasper Thelin and assistant director (plus costume and set designer) Huda Al-Jamal.
Due to this year’s unique drama student and classroom composition at Archie Williams High School, the upcoming Radium Girls production will feature a rotation of three separate casts with three separate leads played by three separate students—in other words, three talented ladies set to play the lead character of Grace in Radium Girls. They are: Zoë Dombrosky, Linnea Nowlen and Julia Conrad, all of whom are excited to take to the stage, whether as the star or in support of their fellow students.
“You really have to understand the material before you learn your lines or go onstage,” Dombrosky explained. “And having Julia and Linnea as my double casts has been great because we can provide feedback—good feedback— especially since we all have such different takes on Grace, and we’re really taking her on with our lives now, which can be a really heavy role at times. But having such amazing, smart and talented people in our community has made it an amazing experience.”
“Grace is an interesting character because, as the story goes on, she develops into a much stronger feminine icon than she was in the beginning when she…is pretty naive and, as the play progresses, she becomes a really strong feminist icon,” said Nowlen. “[Grace] is just a very human character, and that side of her is what makes her so appealing to me as a performer.”
Without giving away the entire plot of the upcoming performance, Radium Girls tells the true story of five female factory workers from 1920s New Jersey, all of whom were among those tasked with the unwittingly lethal labor of painting dials with radium-based paints. Not only were these women instructed to work closely with radium-based paints; those in charge also told them to keep the paintbrushes at a fine point by shaping the bristles in their mouths in-between brush strokes. This, of course, only hastened the lethality of their labor.
“The craziest thing going through the show and reading and understanding and memorizing it is seeing the change in history about how the actual product of radium was viewed, especially because it was sometimes viewed as this legendary ‘youth serum,’” Dombrosky explained. “And then it changed and people realized it makes you sick, and today it’s absolutely banned and everyone knows it’s bad for you.”
“I learned that the radium girls still glow in their graves,” said Conrad. “That was probably the wildest thing I’ve learned from working on this play, at least so far.”
Of course, 100 years later, just about everyone is aware of the lethality of radium. But in the time of Radium Girls, the women affected by the poisoned paint were forced to fight the American court system not only to acknowledge the truth of their mysterious illness but to receive settlements for medical coverage as well. Sadly, the women of Radium Girls did not survive long after the events depicted in the performance.
Since October, the high school drama students have been working on memorizing lines, setting up the stage and nailing their depiction of these complex historical characters. They said they are excited by the challenge of the piece, especially since it is female-centric in a way that is rare in plays. It also serves to add a significant amount of historical context to the past century concerning the development of feminism, spanning from the play’s setting in the 1920s to the students living in the 2020s.
“We’ve never really done a production before that focuses on women as the main character rather than sharing the lead role with a male character,” Dombrosky said. “And when everybody had to read the script beforehand, we were really drawn to it because it has so much substance, historical accuracy, is so interesting and serious and is a real challenge for all the actors.”
“Additionally, [there’s] the fact that the play and these events happened in the 1920s, which was such a momentous time for women in America,” Nowlen said. “Especially since we gained the right to vote, started cutting our hair short and wearing looser clothing…it was a liberating time for women, and joining the workforce was a big part of it, and for that newfound freedom to be taken away from these girls and so tragically is just…”
“It’s educational, really,” noted Conrad. “It reaches the audience, and you learn all about the ’20s and feminism and labor rights…especially labor rights.”
These students’ ability and willingness to tackle the historical intricacies and emotional weight inherent to the tragic, dramatic and (sadly) true tale of Radium Girls highlights their maturity and empathy, all of which combine to allow for the complex and comprehensive performance of this live century-old cinematic production.
“It’s definitely hard since [Radium Girls] is placed in New Jersey, and it turned it into something funny because people were doing the accent for laughs,” explained Nowlen. “But after some time, we realized that this was not a play where we could hone in on comedic relief, and it dawned on us that this was a really real situation that happened, and it happened to a lot of people.”
Τhe Peregrine Players performance of ‘Radium Girls’ opens at 7pm on Tuesday, Dec. 5.
Thereafter, performances include 7pm on Wednesday, Dec. 6 and 7, and 3pm and 7pm on Friday, Dec. 8. Additional performances are at 2pm and 7pm on Saturday, Dec. 9 and Sunday Dec. 10.
The ‘Radium Girls’ performance will take place at 1327 Sir Francis Drake Blvd. in San Anselmo in the Archie Williams Little Theater—admission is free, though suggested donations of $10 (or more) for general admission and $5 for students and seniors help go toward future performances by the Peregrine Players.
Radium Girls tells the true story of five female factory workers from 1920s New Jersey, all of whom were unwittingly exposed to lethal radium-based paint.