“These Shining Lives”: Theatre Simpson presents real-life tragedy

by Laura Wiersema, News Editor

Don’t forget to bring the tissues to Theatre Simpson’s newest production, “These Shining Lives” by Melanie Marnich.

Based on a true story, the play follows four women working at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, in the 1920s, specifically the story of Catherine Donohue. Excited by the opportunity to work, the women take jobs painting watch faces in the factory using radium, which was believed to be beneficial at the time.

“They thought radium was a health food and was safe and could cure all kinds of illnesses from acne to skin cancer,” said Bryce Browning, who plays Tom Donohue, Catherine’s husband, in the production. “In our age, what do we think is safe that hasn’t had further testing?”

But the amazing opportunity turns sour when the women discover they have radium poisoning from their jobs, causing the women to glow, giving the show its name.

“The real-life Radium Girls took their company to court and achieved a long-lasting victory over corporations with poor workplace conditions and workers’ compensation that is still in effect today,” director Ann Woldt said.

Sophomore Audrey Kaus, who plays the role of Catherine in the show, said she is excited to share this piece of history with the audience. The tragic story is one not often told, even in history classes.

“This was a thing that happened that not a lot of people know about about women being abused in the workplace before having a ‘sexcretary’ type of thing,” Kaus said.

The hour-and-a-half performance is done without an intermission and Kaus said she almost never leaves the stage. This combined with the emotional weight of the story is taxing on the actors.

“I end rehearsals very different than I started them,” Browning said. “It’s like working out, it’s like exercising. It’s just like practice for a sport. Your whole body’s into it. I leave and I’m sore. I’m drained because I’ve put so much of myself into this.”

The actors don’t want the tragic moments to define the show, however.

“I hope people see the beauty in the beginning and even the beauty in fight they put up at the end and the courage these women had, while they’re literally dying from the inside out, to stand up and fight because they didn’t want to just go down and be invisible,” Browning said.

Before starting on the production, the actors were instructed to do background research into the situation and their characters. Some of the cast even took a trip to Ottawa and visited the Donohues’ house, their graves and the statue in their honor.

“I want people to get attached to our characters because we, as actors, get attached to them. And we want people to be able to follow the story with us and go on the journey with us considering it’s so emotional,” Kaus said.

More than anything, the story the show tells will serve as a reminder to live life to the fullest.

“Be thankful for the time that you have here because you never know when it could be taken from you…Even when it’s the worst of the worst, you gotta find the happy moments,” Kaus said.

Performances of “These Shining Lives” are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 1 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are limited because the show is in the smaller Barnum Studio Theatre in the Blank Performing Arts Center for a more intimate experience. Tickets are free to students and are available at simpson.tix.com.