It’s deeply cynical, but the title of Melanie Marnich’s play “These Shining Lives” alludes not just to a small-knit group of factory workers, but also to the radium with which they work. So when one woman arrives home and her husband says she’s radiant and glowing, it’s the literal truth. What these women do becomes the subject of this tough drama, opening tonight at the Performing Arts Theater.
Director Tom Whitaker’s last play was the broad comedy of Moliere’s “Tartuffe.” This time around, he’s going for drama, with a play that attracted him with its strong roles for young female actors.
“When I read it I was really emotionally affected by it,” Mr. Whitaker says. “And it was a play I thought needed to be done at this point of our country’s growth or whatever it is we’re doing now. Corporations are getting so much power, from BP to GMOs and the banks. I think things are really a struggle between individual life and happiness and profit-making.”
Ms. Marnich’s play is based on a true story about the Radium Dial company. During World War I there was a great need for dials that would glow in the dark — in airplanes, ships, etc. — and many young women were hired to paint numbers on the dials in radium-based paint. To keep up with demand, many of the women would “lick and dip,” using their tongues to keep the brushes pointed. Unaware of the danger, they were ingesting toxic levels of radium. They indeed would “glow” in dark, just like those dials.
Deaths resulted, and the women sued. The case had to go to the Supreme Court, because each time the women won, the company would appeal. When the Supreme Court refused to listen to Radium Dial’s case, the women finally won, after more than a decade of seeking justice.
The six main characters are led by Catherine (Madelyn Robinson), her husband, Tom (Julian Remulla), her boss, Mr. Reed (Ian Watson) and her co-workers Charlotte (Nico Abramson), Pearl (Sophie Hassett) and Francis (Erin Pettigrew).
“Women had just won the right to vote,” Mr. Whitaker says, explaining the time period, “So it was finally a chance for women to get out of the home and start earning. It was a wondrous adventure, and it is in the first half of the play, but it turns dark as they all fall ill.”
To sum up the play, Mr. Whitaker quotes the lead character’s opening lines:
“It’s not a fairy tale but it begins like one. It’s not a tragedy though it ends like one.”
The play is about the women’s strength, solidarity, and determination to fight. They are not victims, Mr. Whitaker says. The student actors have all done their research in to their characters.
“Even though this is history, the issues are as real today as they were back then,” Mr. Whitaker says.
‘These Shining Lives’
When: 8 p.m. tonight-Nov. 17 (no show Monday), 2 p.m. Sat. and Sun.
Where: UCSB’s Performing Arts Theater
Information: www.theaterdance.ucsb.edu or 893-3241