These Shining Lives tells the true story of the ‘Radium Girls’ of Ottawa, Illinois | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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These Shining Lives tells the true story of the ‘Radium Girls’ of Ottawa, Illinois

The one-act is heavy-handed but accurate.


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Three Crows Theatre has made a name for itself performing plays based on true stories, and this one hits close to home. Melanie Marnich's one-act, directed by Kristin Davis, details the radioactive history of the "Radium Girls" of Ottawa, Illinois. Painting the dials of the watches and clocks at the Radium Dial Company was a coveted job for women in the 1920s: it paid eight cents per watch, and a worker could complete more than 100 per day. The women knew the luminescent paint they were using contained radium, but at the time the radioactive element was highly touted for its healing properties. They licked their paintbrushes to a point; the company paid them little concern and gave them no warning.

"This isn't a fairy tale, though it starts like one. It's not a tragedy, though it ends like one," says lead Catherine Donohue (Selena Lopez), the most fully realized character in the story. Lopez plays Catherine's arc well, though narration directed at the audience takes away from time spent connecting with the others onstage. Catherine is thrilled to have snagged the job of a lifetime, only to have her husband, Tom (Michael C. Hyatt), mansplain that "work that pays well costs you something." The male characters patronize the "girls" throughout. It's a heavy-handed but accurate depiction of the times and women's lack of agency in the workplace. The uphill legal battle Catherine and three of her coworkers wage against Radium Dial is inspiring and could be even more moving with more details about the characters and time spent on their legacy.   v

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