Radium Girls is based upon a real-life group of women that history has come to know by that very name. These women were employed in factories that paint luminescent watch faces for the war effort, with a glowing paint made of an adhesive mixed with a radium powder.
Radiation and radioactive particles are notorious throughout history for not being fully comprehended by the people trying to make use of them. This commercial venture was no different, as the factory girls were often told to reshape the tips of their brushes on their lip, resulting in the ingestion of large amounts of radium over the course of several years. This eventually led to debilitating cases of anaemia, horrific instances of necrosis of the jaw, and ultimately an undeserved and early death.
The evening’s performance follows the life of Grace Fryer, as played by Katrina Soroka, a Radium Girl who must watch her own health, and that of her closest friends, slowly and painfully deteriorate. Fryer eventually comes to put her life and livelihood on the line to press a lawsuit against the industry whose ignorance and self-centredness cost many women their future.
While I quite enjoyed this play, be prepared for a production that is heavy on exposition. With very little action to break up the dialogue, the show can start to feel tedious and drawn out. It doesn’t help that some of the actors seem better suited for more active roles, not quite managing to express their characters as effectively in this format.
When it comes to a play like this, actors need to be able to do a lot with just a little. Since action is subdued, most of their character is rooted in what they have to say, which can in turn hinge upon just how well and convincingly they manage to say it. Emily Walsh, Derek Barr, and Paul Arbour each deserve recognition for the flair that they brought to their roles. .
However, Bruce Rayfuse is the one who truly stands out in this. He was able to give a great deal of life to the character of Arthur Roeder, the owner of the factory that becomes the target of Fryer’s lawsuit. Through his effective voicing of the character and the nuanced physicality that he’s able to incorporate into his performance, Rayfuse does an amazing job of presenting the internal discords of a compassionate man who refuses to let new facts interfere with the business he feels has done so much good.
Soroka really comes into her own in the latter half of this performance. While she begins the play as a whimsical and accommodating young woman, her character becomes so much more intense when she is forced to confront the tragedy of her fate. No only has her future been taken from her, she must also try and navigate a world that seems all too happy to take advantage of her misfortune. Her inner strength shines through when she is, time and time again, asked to ignore her own self-interest, or to sell-out her cause in one way or another.
The stage setup is also quite interesting. Simple for the most part, it is backed with a series of translucent window frames upon which various images are projected. While the images didn’t seem to add a lot to performance, the windows themselves were also interestingly used as partitions to suggest the closed door meetings of the Radium Factory board. The projections did help to signal scene changes and jumps forward in time, which could be difficult to pick up due to the episodic nature of the scripting.
Radium Girls is the second performance in the 2015 Kanata Theatre season and is, while slow at times, the stronger of the two shows (Find my first review here). This show tackles themes that remain important in this day and age, including corporate responsibility and women’s rights. While, historically, the ending to this story isn’t a nice one, these women still managed to achieve something monumental in the face of overwhelming odds, and director Tom Kobolak and his cast have done justice to their story.