By Fiona Burrows and Clara Kobashigawa, Staff Writer and News Editor
//With a only a year left to live and 250,000 dollars to spend, what would you do? In the 1920’s, factory workers named “the radium girls” are faced with this question as time slowly slips away from them. With only a year to live, the girls decide to spend their last days fighting against death and the United States Radium Corporation.
The play Radium Girls tells the true story of young women working in watchmaking factories during the 1920’s. Each day, the girls painstakingly paint hundreds of watch dials embellished with glowing radium paint on the clock faces for the soldiers fighting in World War II and public fashion. The young women are instructed to lick the tips of their brushes to make clean points for the intricate work, but that will soon end their lives. The workers, nicknamed radium girls, slowly develop painful, terminal radiation sickness that kills them within a year of diagnosis.
“[The girls] suffer from anemia, bone fractures, and necrosis of the jaw. That basically means your jaw is dying, it’s a condition now known as radium jaw,” Director and drama teacher Ed Meehan said.
The story follows one of the factory workers, Grace Fryer, played by senior Faith Branch, as she fights for compensation from her employer Arthur Roeder, played by senior Cameron Burrill.
The play opens with supervisor Mrs. MacNeil (Anna Cain) introducing Arthur to Grace and her coworkers Kathryn Schaub (Riley Morris), and Irene Rudolph (Olivia Olson). The three women smile and laugh as they tediously paint the dials with luminescent paint.
Then two news reporters, Nancy Jane Harlan or “Sob Sister” (Jen McFarland) and Jane Youngwood (Raven Joyce) take the stage. The two news reporters help narrate the story through the eyes of the public.
During this time, Madame Curie (Brady Sugrue) experiments with radium and believes it is a cure for cancer. The public begins to spread radium elixirs across the nation as a miracle cure and cannot get enough of the potion.
Grace has a great life, a paying job, and a loving boyfriend Tom Kriender (Cameron Beattie). All seems well for the working class protagonist, however, everything starts to crumble when Irene falls ill and dies of unknown causes. The United States Radium Corporation assures the workers that the company is not responsible, but Kathryn begins to doubt this when she fall ill as well.
With the help of the Executive Director of the New Jersey Consumer’s League Katherine Wiley (Olivia Olson), Graces goes to court against the U.S. Radium Corporation and Arthur Roeder. As she falls ill, Grace finds herself at odds with not only the corporation, but her friends and family too. Even Mr. Roeder’s personal relationships are damaged as his company begins to be scrutinized by the public. His wife Diana (Anna Cain) questions the morality of what he’s doing to keep himself afloat and fears the public humiliation the court case brings. The play ends with Arthur Roeder consumed with guilt as he looks at the frail and dying Grace Fryer.
According to Meehan, Radium Girls is loaded with heavy, important themes that are emphasized through it’s dramatic and fast-paced plot. One of the show’s most noteworthy themes is questioning science. For a period of time, radium was seen as a magnificent cure for diseases, but science later proves it to be deadly.
“Even though the events of Radium Girls takes place a hundred years ago… there are a lot of things that resonate now,” Meehan said, “A couple of those things are first, the idea of a company doing things that aren’t necessarily great and trying to cover them up or buy people off. It’s kind of corporate malfeasance.”
Sophomore student director Isabelle Del Sesto, stage manager Johan Kallen, and the rest of stage crew were able to transport the audience to the 1920’s with gorgeous set design, killer costumes, and amazing sound and light design. These elements elevated the believability of the performance to new heights.
“We’re so blessed to have such an awesome student director, Isabelle Del Sesto, who put in so much effort in blocking and props and stage directing, it was just incredible! I think all in all, the actors and backstage crew were all as prepared as they could’ve been and performed a show that really came from their hearts,” Branch said.
The costumes reflected the 1920s with girls in long fitted dresses and men in old fashioned suits and suspenders.
“We really tried to capture the 20’s with the costumes and get a feeling for the time. We wanted to give the impression that this isn’t now,” Meehan said.
Costumes, hair, and makeup all add to the illusion of the stage. The bruising makeup on Irene, Kathryn, and Grace’s jaws was masterfully done, and it felt as though the audience was seeing the real progression of the worker’s so called “radium jaw.”
The set was breathtaking with a large clock on the side of the stage and a brick backdrop. It fit perfectly with scenes that took place in the factory and even worked with scenes that took place in Grace’s house. In addition, it showed how time was running out for the girls. The dark blue stage lighting also added to the haunting ambience of the entire show.
All of the actors in the play paid attention to details when portraying their characters. The accents, ranging from New York to Southern to Polish, were superb and realistic. Because many people portrayed up to six different characters, it was important that the actors emphasized what made each character different. Actors changed clothes, mannerisms, accents, and even facial hair to depict a play with 38 characters and just 13 actors.
The seven returning cast members continued to deliver stellar performances and show the incredible range of acting they have up their sleeves.
Branch wowed audiences with her character’s tragic story and moved people with her beautiful portrayal of a woman with the world falling down around her. Audiences sympathized with Grace, a complex and vulnerable character that Branch played with grace.
“I thought it was a matter of staying present with the character’s life throughout the story. I couldn’t let my mind jump ahead of me, I just had to remember that this character is still figuring out what’s happening to her, and Grace has to make that discovery, not Faith,” Branch said.
Burrill plays the morally conflicted factory owner Arthur and shows the character’s struggle between making a profit and caring for his workers. Arthur could be seen as just a villain, but Burrill depicts him as a man who is clearly under strain from his ambition and desire to provide for his family.
Making the play shine took the entire cast’s collective effort, and new DramaDons didn’t let the seniority of returning actors intimidate them. Six new students were featured in Radium Girls this year and exceeded expectations.
Freshman Brady Sugrue dazzled audiences with her portrayals of Madame Curie, clerk of the health department, Mrs. Michaels, and back again through accent changes and fantastic acting decisions. In addition, sophomore Anna Sominsky, who played Mrs. Fryer, Society Woman, and Shop Girl, rivaled returning cast members with her incredible acting.
Senior Joe Frumenti also impressed in his first school play. His characters Markley, Dr. Von Sochocky, and photographer were not only very believable, but entertaining as well. He engaged audiences, who laughed at his comedic timing and brilliant German accent as Von Sochocky and hated the devious lawyer Markley.
Junior Jake Kallick was absolutely hilarious as Bailey and the Lovesick Cowboy. The audience could not stop laughing as Bailey advertised the radium elixir Radithor and spoke with a country accent. Radium Girls was Kallick’s first production at Acalanes and he could not be more thrilled with how the play turned out.
“I am very happy with the results of the show. I think everybody did a really good job,” Kallick said. “I was really happy to see the whole show finally come together and tell this important story.”
“I’m really pleased with how everything turned out. The whole cast did such a fantastic job coming together and making the transitions tight, projecting, and really giving their all for this show,” Branch said. “I feel like this cast worked so hard on really nailing their scenes by taking time out of there day and coming in at lunch or after school and just running through scenes.”
Combining magnificent acting, a realistic setting, and a mysterious plot, Radium Girls was exceptional. Seeing the play makes one appreciate all of the time and effort put into making the production a glowing success.