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Northlight Theatre's Shining Lives is a missed opportunity to depict real drama

Jessica Thebus's musical, based on a true story, leaves you furious for the wrong reasons..

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If you don't leave this show furious you have no heart. The story alone should make you furious: a group of young women, full of life and hope, take the only jobs available to them and earn early deaths for their pains. That the story is based on fact—the young women in question worked at the Radium Dial Company, in Ottawa, Illinois, in the 1920s, painting the faces of clocks and watches with radioactive paint, ingesting lots of radium in the process and contracting deadly illnesses as a result of their exposure—makes it all the more infuriating.

Especially when we learn the factory owners used every trick at their disposal to wriggle out of responsibility. They blamed the women's illnesses on immorality (the first who died were accused of succumbing to tertiary syphilis), they bought off the local physicians (who just prescribed aspirin or denied the women were sick at all), and they fought the few women who dared take them to court, filing appeal after appeal after appeal while the victims wasted away and died.

Infuriating, yes. But also surely the stuff of great theater.

Well, not this time.

And that's another reason I left this show from Northlight Theatre furious—the opportunity wasted by Jessica Thebus, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert, who wrote the music. They were given the chance to transform Melanie Marnich's compelling drama These Shining Lives into a musical, and the result is a musical with no drama.

Thebus, who also directs, presents the story as if it were a series of live-action dioramas, some of them set to songs that aren't bad but also aren't particularly rousing or memorable. All of the scenes are packed with historically accurate costumes, believable period furniture, and projected photos from the era that set the scene. It might be a good supplement to a history class, but it doesn't stand on its own.

Thebus and company don't even make it clear what story they're trying to tell or which characters they're following. A full half of the 90-minute play is devoted to background: we learn a little about America in the 20s, a little about radium, a little about work routines at the Radium Dial Company, a little about the changing status of women and the concomitant transformation of marriage.

Did you know, for example, that radium was believed to have amazing health benefits and was added to all kind of household products, including soap and toothpaste? The women at Radium Dial were told the radium would put a glow in their cheeks. They did their nails and eyes with paint made from the stuff.

But information isn't drama. And after a while all this exposition feels like a shield against the very real devastation at the center of the story. This is most palpable in the early scenes, when a lot of time is spent showing the women working and relaxing together. The shadow of death looms large here—we know all along they're doomed—but the production barely acknowledges this. I suppose in the right hands it could be moving to watch four women grow close and find themselves even as the clock winds down, but this show never achieves that level of intensity.

Nor do Thebus and company seem interested creating in that kind of show. Instead they brightly pass over it all, creating beautiful scenes, entertaining us with sprightly, witty songs, dazzling us with lighting effects. Through it all the women at the center of the story remain bland and forgettable, just names on a work roster, the way their bosses saw them. Even the wonderful period costumes, designed by Linda Roethke, do little to give the characters the illusion of a third dimension.

Playing Catherine Donohue, the show's protagonist, a rather mousy-looking woman with enough grit to fight the company to the death (literally), Johanna McKenzie Miller is utterly unmemorable. It isn't all her fault: the only thing that sets Donohue off from the other three women is that she's in a few more scenes and has a husband (also bland).

We don't even get a good David-versus-Goliath tale. Thebus, Pluess, and Dehnert seem so reluctant to assign blame here it's as if they're afraid of offending anyone. Is there a descendant of the Radium Dial Company's owners on the board?

In the end, that's infuriating too. If you don't have the guts to tell the story you say you're going to tell, tell a different story. There are a million of them out there. Save this one for someone who'll tell it right.  v

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