By Meg Gray
When we think of notable historical events, what usually comes to mind? Perhaps it’s the significant wars that your country has faced in the past hundred years, or the institution of new laws granting marginalized communities more rights and freedoms. Radium Girls, Skidmore College’s spring Mainstage production, references many of these events, but focuses more closely on the women whose hardships led to safer and healthier working conditions. These are the moments that we only realize are historical once they are complete. Written by D.W. Gregory and directed by Rebecca Marzalek-Kelly, Radium Girls centers on the forgotten moments of history that bear great significance. It forces us to remember these women and the battles they fought for the sake of the next generation of laborers.
The story follows Grace, portrayed by Lily Kops ‘22, who by all means is an ordinary member of the American working class. Having to leave school at fifteen to support her family, she finds substantial employment at the United States Radium Corporation’s factory. Her and her colleagues paint hundreds of watch faces a day with newly invented, mystical radium paint. The magical substance glows in the dark and many of the employees paint their face and teeth with it so they too can glow in the dark. The women are instructed by their bosses to use their lips to point the tip of their brushes. Yet quite suddenly, many of the women begin to fall ill with mysterious illnesses. Grace does not escape this, and she too begins to suffer as a result of her job. She is faced with the choice of a quiet, peaceful death or fighting her former employer for justice and hopefully, saving the lives of future women.
Set in the 1920s, dramaturg Coco McNeil ’21 provides context to root the show, which is inspired by true events. Radium, discovered in 1898 by Marie Curie and colleagues, is the catalyst for the play’s circumstances. McNeil’s research centers on the changing dynamics of women in the workplace, since at “the end of World War I, women made up 20% of the manufacturing workforce in the U.S.” for the first time ever. Especially with the passing of the 19th amendment in 1919, women were interacting with American society in new and radical ways. Yet, as the story of Radium Girls reveals, women still held subordinate roles in society and were easily taken advantage of by employers.
The world that Marzalek-Kelly creates with Radium Girls is spectacular, immense, and quite literally, glowing. Scenic designer Garrett Wilson transforms the main stage theater into an expansive factory space. We are transported to a workspace in New Jersey, surrounded by wooden paneling and tall windows. Lighting designer Jared Klein uses these vast windows to illuminate the space, showing the passing of time by the shifting light across the stage floor. Lighting is also a tool used to show the novelty, and now-obvious hazards, of radium. Blue and green projections display the substance’s radioactivity and dire effects, particularly in a stunning and horrific fever dream sequence towards the end of the play.
The stage was not the only thing glowing green. Costume designer Patty Pawliczak, with assistants Bridget Kerr ’20 and Camila Tardif ’22, created glow-in-the-dark clothing that depicts how the women used to glow at the end of their shift. While it is impossible to deny its beauty, it is a double-edged sword, for it is a reminder of how much radium the women were consuming, and ultimately being killed by. These glowing costumes were best displayed during Grace’s dream, where she is haunted by Marie Curie and her past co-workers, who shine ominously. Outside of luminescent aprons, the actors are clad in standard 1920s garb: modest, colorful dresses for the women and dark, dapper suits for the men. The clothing re-emphasizes the traditional gender roles men and women are perpetually separated by.
Between the many scene changes or during moments of silence, a rapid, repeating ticking noise plays, a central theme in sound designer August Sylvester ’20’s soundscape. This is a direct reference to the product being created in the girls’ factory: watches. Yet it also symbolizes the passing of time, and how many of the women running out of it. As more time passes, the former employees grow more and more sick. Especially as the trial begins, time is of the essence. Many of the women do not have years, or even months, to wait for judicial change. The effects of their radium poisoning will not wait for the courts. The sound design also makes use of distorted swing music and evocative instrumentals, tapping into both the play’s historical setting and dramatic tone.
One unique aspect of the show that Director Marzalek-Kelly included is a slightly unconventional method of switching the furniture that establishes the world of the show. The production was ultimately quite minimal, with few props and only a few tables and chairs, all set on wheels. The world was largely created with lighting and sound. The show is also quite fast-paced, moving quickly from factory scenes to President of United States Radium Corporation Arthur Roeder’s home to a courtroom. To seamlessly facilitate these changes, Marzalek-Kelly incorporated choreographed transitions in which the actors pushed the furniture into new positions. The wheeled furniture was dragged, pushed, and at times, rode on. When asked about these choices, Marzalek-Kelly believes this blocking “quite literally helps drive the play.”
The show was ensemble-based, and the majority of actors portrayed multiple characters, with some members of the cast playing up to five separate people. This provided the actors many opportunities to be on stage, and also revealed connections between these separate beings. A notable example is Jillienne Leigh Glodowski’s ’22 two characters: Madame Marie Curie and Katherine Wiley, the president of the New Jersey Consumer League, who notices the power of the media and encourages Grace to use it to her advantage. Both of Glodowski’s characters are strong, groundbreaking woman, and using the same actor to portray both of these individuals makes their connections more obvious.
As Marzalek-Kelly reminds us in her director’s note in the program, Radium Girls is a crucial story to tell because “battling for justice remains extremely relevant.” The show reminds us of institutions like media, science, business, and human rights and how these forces are intimately and intricately entwined with one another. Business cannot operate without the mass media reporting on it, and science cannot function without the progress of human rights. If it does, we will see more of the same situations depicted in Radium Girls, where marginalized populations are exploited for the sake of a profit for the already-rich. Dramaturg McNeil reminds us in her notes that in 1975 “(white) women make .77 cents to a man’s dollar. This hasn’t changed federally in almost 50 years.” We are reminded of how far we have come, but still how far we have left to go.
Written by: D.W. Gregory
Directed by: Rebecca Marzalek-Kelly
Scenic Design: Garrett Wilson
Lighting Design: Jared Klein
Sound Design: August Sylvester ’20
Costume Design: Patty Pawliczak
Dramaturg: Coco McNeil ’20
Props: Jessie Blackman ’20
Assistant Directors: Eliza Martin ’21 and Hanna Yurfest ’21
Stage Management: Eve Gertzman ’20
Cast: Ajani Acloque ’22, Rinzin Thonden Alling ’20, Matt Clyne ’20, Kat Collin ’21, Hannah Curtis ’20, Emmaline Ellsworth ’23, Spencer Evett ’21, Jillienne Leigh Glodowski ’22, May Halm ’23, Lily Kops ’22, Nick Leonard ’20, Max LoSardo ’20, Kate Mahoney ’22, Hanna Nyberg ’22, Caoilin O’Connor ’20, Fabian Rodriguez ’22, Julian Schepis ’22, Stella Storino ’23, Henry Thomas ’20
Meg Gray ’22 is an assistant editor for the Skidmore Theater Living Newsletter.