DramaNew York

Radium Girls– Metropolitan Playhouse, New York, NY

Writer: D.W. Gregory

Director: Laura Livingston

Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell

In 1928, five women who had worked as watch dial painters for the United States Radium Corporation sought to sue their former employer after they fell ill from radium poisoning. While higher-level employees at U.S. Radium avoided exposure the women who painted dials were not only mislead about the dangers of radium, they were instructed to maintain the points on their brushes by wetting the brush tips in their mouths and thus, ingested radium paint regularly during the course of each work day. United States Radium denied responsibility for years before finally settling with the women out of court. D.W. Gregory’s 2003 play Radium Girls, currently running at Metropolitan Playhouse, centers on the lives of the dial painters, executives, and scientists of U.S. Radium. Laura Livingston directs.

Radium Girls follows the life of Grace Fryer (Olivia Killingsworth), who starts work at U.S. Radium at the age of fifteen. Grace enjoys her work and is close with her fellow factory workers Kathryn Schaub (Grace Bernardo) and Irene Rudolph (Kate Falk), though they aren’t fond of their overbearing supervisor, Mrs. MacNeil (Marie Lenzi). The company president, Arthur Roeder (Kelly Cooper), vice president Charlie Lee (Benjamin Russell), and founder Dr. Von Sochocky (David Logan Rankin) are focused on expanding the work of U.S. Radium. When the factory’s star dial painter, Amalia Maggia (Sydney Badway) dies, the women think it is a coincidence until they start to fall ill as well. Grace is planning her wedding to her childhood sweetheart, Tom (Kyle Maxwell), but soon her health problems take all her attention. U.S. Radium denies all responsibility for the women’s declining health. Only when the director of the New Jersey Consumer’s League, Kathrine Wiley (Michelle Bagwell) alerts the press does the company take real notice. What follows is a battle in the courts of law and public opinion while time starts to run out for titular Radium Girls.

Laura Livingston makes some bold choices with her direction of this play. Especially strong is her choice to have the character of Amalia Maggia, only mentioned in D.W. Gregory’s script, appear as a spectre throughout the play. It highlights this woman as the first casualty of U.S. Radium’s negligence. While the staging is strong and rises to the challenges of playing to the whole audience in a thrust space, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of how much time has passed between scenes. Livingston addresses the play’s casting (most actors play six to seven characters during the course of the show) with a combination of costumes and masks. The masks are an interesting take, but don’t always work– they often shift the tone in ways that prove distracting. Acting is generally strong in scenes that lean into realism and focus on connections between characters; the scenes that highlight the media frenzy around the trial are sometimes uneven. Design elements are generally strong, in particular Vincent Gunn’s set with faintly glowing furniture and shelves of clocks and Heather M. Crocker’s ethereal lighting design. Costume designer Sidney Fortner does a fine job of using simple pieces to help indicate character changes. Bill Toles’s sound design does a lot of the work of helping establish place.

Though D.W. Gregory’s play is nearly twenty years old, the conversations that it raises about labor conditions and corporate responsibility are just as relevant as they were when the real Grace Fryer decided to sue U.S. Radium. Although this is not a perfect production, it is strong and brave and highlights the central characters’ humanity. The production’s minor missteps are not enough to detract from a strong return to in-person productions for Metropolitan Playhouse.

Runs until 21 November 2021 | Photo Credit: Brian Lau

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Timely and Thought-Provoking

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