In Spring of 2012, the Theater and Dance Department produced an original play by director Jeff Mills and playwright Valerie Slitor called “Piezoelectric Love: The Half-Life of Marie Curie,” which detailed the tumultuous life and work of the trailblazing female scientist, particularly her work with radium. Whether or not this quarter’s production of Melanie Marnich’s “These Shining Lives”— a play about female workers at Radium Dial — was put on intentionally after “Piezoelectric Love” is a mystery, but the production nevertheless feels like a spiritual sequel. Both plays address the destructive properties sof radium and evolving gender roles at the turn of the
twentieth century, though in vastly different ways. “These Shining Lives” details the true story of Catherine Donahue (Madelyn Robinson), a young mother of two who secures a job painting watches at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois. After working for several years with her close friends Frances ”(Erin Pettigrew), Charlotte (Nicole Abramson) and Pearl (Sophie Hassett), Catherine discovers that she :and her co-workers are suffering from the effects of long-term radium exposure. Her husband, Tom (Julian Remulla), suffers alongside her while her boss, Mr. .Reed (Ian Watson) plainly refuses to acknowledge ,that there is even a problem. For the production, the Performing Arts Theater was morphed to resemble a .timepiece, splashed with glowing paint and lit in black light to create the most intoxicating stage I have ever seen in a UCSB play. As usual, UCSB’s finest BFA acting students brought their A-game to the production, with help from director Tom Whitaker (of UCSB’s “How I Learned to Drive” and “Tartuffe”), who always seems to extract his actors’ best performances.
Abramson sizzles as the acerbic Charlotte, stealing many scenes with her sharp tongue and infectious cackle. Hassett’s ditzy Pearl, a joke-spouting goofball who finds her wild side over the course of the play, provides adorable relief from Charlotte’s loquacious bite. Ian Watson makes the effete Mr. Reed such a delight to watch that his slimy shifts in the latter act take the viewer by surprise. The only flat note in the production comes from Remulla, who never quite seems comfortable in his costume; a particularly devastating monologue at the end of the play is castrated by his rushed lines and monotonous inflection.
“These Shining Lives” clocks in at little longer than one hour, making it almost half the length of the admittedly glutted “Piezoelectric Love.” But whereas “Love” could have used a trim, “These Shining Lives” would have benefited from a more languorous pace. The play whizzes by, pausing only for dramatically ironic scenes in which the Radium Girls sigh with contentment at their auspicious lives. We are told that Catherine suffers from necrosis, anemia and bone fractures, yet we never get to truly feel her pain. In a courtroom scene, she presents her removed mandible as evidence for her case, but the audience stares at a comely, whole woman holding an empty box.
Obviously, there is a theatrical limit to accuracy, but at the heart of it, the script of “These Shining Lives” pays such meticulous attention to its source material that it forgets to let the audience actually empathize with its characters, despite the excellent efforts of those involved with this production; tired archetypes like The Unhelpful Doctor, The Husband Who Just Won’t Listen and The Catty Friends are used to tell what should be a haunting story. A little less “docu-” and a little more “drama” would have helped this play eschew its clichés and show us how, in crushing multitudes, Catherine Donahue was truly poisoned.