Melanie Marnich’s play These Shining Lives depicts the true story of the battle fought by four female factory workers against an employer whose work is making them sick.
In the 1920s, the Radium Dial Company hired thousands of female workers at three plants around the country. Their job was to paint a radium-laced, glow-in-the-dark substance onto the dials of clocks and watches. The women were never warned about the harmful effects of the radioactive element, and many later died from radium poisoning.
Mackenzie Zorn, a junior at Purdue who plays protagonist Catherine Donohue, says the story struck her.
“I was not familiar with it and it disappointed me so much that I wasn’t because I just thought, “How could I not have heard about this?” And I think it goes to show the fact that women’s voices, even now, we have to fight to ensure that they are heard,” Zorn says.
These Shining Lives stars the women of the factory in Ottawa, Illinois. Catherine, Charlotte, Frances, and Pearl are instructed to use the “lip, dip, and paint” method, requiring the women to use their lips to shape the radium-soaked paint brushes into a fine point.
The four women decide to seek medical advice after suffering from anemia, jaw pain, and other medical issues. Company doctors dismiss their ailments and refuse to listen to their stories.
Guest director Emily Rollie of Central Washington University compares the situation to battles women continue to fight today.
“I think we are in a moment, especially post-Me Too and the Not in Our House in Chicago, where we’re really interested in leveling the playing field and really hearing women’s voices and giving women agency,” Rollie says.
The four women’s illnesses cause them to miss work, and many are fired after requesting too many sick days. After finding a doctor who will honestly diagnose them, their case is taken to court with Donahue as the lead plaintiff.
Set designer Max He is an international graduate student who says the production has provided an education she hasn’t always been able to get...
“Women as a society themselves trying to fight back is a really important aspect that I learned because in China we aren’t taught that feminism is a thing,” He says.
He says with such heavy subject matter comes the possibility of no applause. She says she’s prepared for that, but wants audiences to consider the meaning of the production.
“I hope they applause, but if they don’t I think that kind of means that they’re still thinking and they’re still processing the whole history,” He says.
Zorn says the role has taught her how to be unafraid, and she hopes the production will motivate audiences to learn more about the historical impact of the female factory workers.
“I hope that it makes them go up and research this case, and look at these women, and recognize the fact that we are putting real women’s stories, names, and words on a stage. And then I also hope that they take away that their voice matters,” Zorn says.
These Shining Lives opens tonight at 7:30, and the final show will be September 29th at 2:30.