At a time when occupational safety regulations are being loosened and funding for the agencies responsible for their enforcement being reduced, it’s good to be reminded how those safeguards came to be and what life was like for American workers before then.
The Ross Valley Players’ production of Melanie Marnich’s These Shining Lives does just that.
Part domestic drama, part workplace tragedy, the play is based on the true story of the women who worked for the Radium Dial Company of Ottawa, Illinois, in the late 1920s through the early ’30s. It focuses on Catherine Donahue (Jessica Dahlgren), a happily married mother of two who joins the workforce to help support her family. Her husband Tom (Frankie Stornaiuolo) isn’t thrilled by the thought of a working wife.
Catherine joins a work crew whose task is to paint the numbers and hands on watches and clocks with luminescent radium. The process is simple: lick the brush and bring it to a point, dip the brush in the radium, apply to watch elements, repeat.
It’s not long before Catherine starts to feel ill, but the company doctor merely prescribes aspirin. In a company town, she finds it tough to get anyone to listen to her and her co-workers as their ailments get worse. It’ll take a trip to Chicago to find a doctor and eventually a lawyer who will listen, and it will be years before they are really heard. Their time is severely limited.
Marnich has latched onto a fascinating story and done a pretty good job of telling it. The workplace scenes work better than those at the homestead, where the dialogue frequently lapses into the trite—“How did I ever find you?” “Just lucky, I guess.”
Director Mary Ann Rodgers casts it well, with Dahlgren and Stornaiuolo overcoming weak dialogue to create compelling characters. Jazmine Pierce, Sarah Williams and Carly Van Liere play her co-workers, and each do a fine job with their semi-stock roles (the funny one, the harsh one, etc.)
The time-related set design by co-star Malcolm B. Rodgers (he essays several roles) and the scenic artistry by Kristy Arroyo complement the subject matter as does the sound design by Billie Cox.
Ross Valley Players’ These Shining Lives is a well-mounted production that serves both as a reminder of how things once were and a warning that, without diligence, they can be again.
‘These Shining Lives’ runs Thursday–Sunday through March 31 at the Barn Theatre in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. Times vary. $12–$27. 415.883.4498. rossvalleyplayers.com.