Lines rehearsed anxiously. Boards cut quickly. Props painted precisely. Blocking repeated purposefully. With the show only weeks away, there is no stopping the cast and crew as they prepare for East Theatre’s latest production These Shining Lives, which will open to the public in East’s Performing Arts Center on Thursday, October 24th, at 7 p.m.
Becoming the Radium Girls
These Shining Lives tells the story of four women — Catherine, Charlotte, Pearl, and Frances — of Ottawa, Illinois, during the 1920s as they enter the workforce, employed at a Radium Dial Company factory. The women paint watch dials day in and day out and eventually contract radium poisoning from their extensive contact with the chemical. The drama follows their experiences with standing up against the corrupt company’s neglect that caused their tragic illness.
Senior Amy Keca plays one of the leads, Charlotte Purcell. Keca learned of the show two years ago and said she immediately thought it was a story that needed to be told.
“It’s super important because we don’t learn about it in school, we don’t know about it,” Keca said. “The Radium Dial Company and what they did to those girls, those women, we don’t learn about it. We don’t learn about it in history even though it was super important.”
Senior Phillip Salisbury, portraying protagonist Catherine Donhue’s husband Tom said that the story of the women affected by lenient labor laws should not become a lost memory.
“I feel like because we never really learn about them, at least in history classes and with it being so close to home, in Ottawa, Illinois, it’s a pretty big thing,” Salisbury said. “Not to mention that it’s one of the main things that started workers’ rights.”
It’s more than preserving the past that makes this show appealing, however. The drama itself is memorable because of the story of strength and grit it tells. Junior Student Director Cameron Andrea said that this side of the play resonated with him most.
“I do think that there’s a lesson that everyone can take away that it’s the matter of unification and being there for somebody when they’re having a hard time and how you can help them by just packing together and fighting something you all believe in,” Andrea said.
Director Nicole Chandler said she picked the show three years ago for her thesis project to obtain her master’s degree in theatre directing. She said the show spoke to her due to its ability to send a powerful message that asserting one’s self and doing what is right, while difficult, is the best course of action.
“It was a story about women. It’s a story about the workplace. It’s a story about finding your voice and standing up for yourself. And it is a story about sisterhood. All things that I find to be relevant to today’s time period,” Chandler said.
Because of the history behind the story as well as its powerful themes, the rehearsal process for These Shining Lives has required in-depth character analysis and discussion.
Senior Olivia Antoniolli plays protagonist Catherine Donohue, who led her friends and coworkers alike in calling out the greed Radium Dial Company allowed to consume them as they withheld crucial information from employees regarding their health.
“First we did one to two weeks of table work. So we learned about our characters, dove really deep into the history of the show since it is based on a true story,” Antoniolli said. “The word that kept sticking out to me is ‘courage’… And so everything that I do to try to shape a relatable character is focused around courage and the courage in the show.”
One of Catherine’s best friends is played by senior Carson Bierman, who said that it was important that the actresses in the production build connections with their characters.
“Since it is true and since my character’s a real person — all of our characters are real people — it’s really important to me to play them accurately,” Bierman said.
Amy Keca said that she grappled with the portrayal of her character in a similar way.
“This is actually probably the most challenging role I’ve had because Charlotte is a very complex character,” Keca said. “She has two layers to her, so showing the first layer of hard, rigid, sarcastic-ness at the beginning, and then years later within the show, how different she is once she’s comfortable with the people she loves.”
The representation of each female lead was not the only challenge, however. According to some sources, diving into a role and embodying the part proved to be difficult for other cast members as well. Sophomore Brenden Keller struggled in this way with playing Mr. Reed, the owner of the factory where the women worked.
“It’s challenging because I have to find the difference between my view of the character and the way that I should be playing the character,” Keller said. “Initially I viewed my character as a kind of an emotionless, mean guy. But, there were points where I need to play him as an actual emotional character, someone who has feelings.”
These Shining Lives is Phillip Salisbury’s first production with East Theatre and the responsibility of portraying Tom Donohue pushed him to rise to the challenge of memorizing and learning so much more for a role than ever before.
“In all my showcases I had really short lines. I had, I think, thirteen lines at most, and now I’ve got the most lines out of any other guy in the show,” Salisbury said.
Building from the ground up
Meanwhile, the crew has toiled over the details, big and small, of constructing the perfect set to help tell the story.
Stage manager and junior Emily Harshbarger ensures that the crew’s projects get finished, and are well done, to allow for the best flow to the production.
“Everybody’s running everything together and it’s my job to make sure everything runs together smoothly,” Harshbarger said.
Training new members quickly became a priority to ensure all the work could be completed. Senior Parker Valek said that with having more years of experience in the crew he helped as a leader with all the incoming freshmen members.
“It actually helps us, so that we have more hands on deck,” Valek said of having an abundance of new freshmen join the team.
This show’s set is fairly straightforward this year, but requires a lot of hands-on work from the crew to build platforms and add precise details to what will become props and background pieces of the set. Freshman Jack Ludolph said he quickly learned how much work goes into building the perfect set.
“It was a little bit overwhelming in the beginning because crew is not just one thing. It’s painting, drilling, carpentry work. It’s all that. So it was a little overwhelming learning everything at first,” Ludolph said. “You kind of have to make a mental planner in your head for like, ‘okay, what needs to get done, and when can we get it done?’”
The process, while painstaking, is purposeful. All the projects have to come together to build the environment of the story about to be told. Junior Rhiannon works on many of the painting jobs on the set and says accuracy is especially important in the work.
“You have to be very precise on everything because obviously, if something is messed up, or if a line isn’t quite right, or something isn’t drilled correctly, especially, can lead to bad things not only visually, but structurally,” Rannochio said.
The clock is ticking
As the cast and crew continue to work towards the quickly approaching performances, they anxiously await to see how audiences will receive their hard work.
“I think it’ll be really shocking because it was a true story and [the audience will] be able to resonate with the characters more because they were real people and this is something that really happened,” Keca said.
While the reception of the show and the characters cannot be predicted, the cast and crew is hoping to get an emotional response.
“The journey it takes you on is really wonderful. Catherine’s story is beautiful,” Bierman said. “And everything you learn throughout the show, like just the value of time and the value of being connected to others, and how just having a support system can mean the world to somebody, is really important.”
Above all, the cast and crew said they aim to show the strength of the Radium Girls and how their story can still impact us today.
“I think that the audience is going to be really shocked, but I also think they’re going to leave feeling a bit different about everything that they do throughout life and the way that they look at things. It’s a very [eye-opening] show,” Andrea said.
These Shining Lives will show in the PAC October 24th through the 26th at 7 p.m.
Elizabeth Dyer is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl