These Shining Lives is “not a fairy tale, though it starts like one. It’s not a tragedy, though it ends like one.”
That is according to Catherine Donahue, a character and narrator portrayed by Sami Topping ’19 in the upcoming University of Lynchburg Theatre production.
Melanie Marnich’s These Shining Lives will open in Dillard Theatre on February 23. Directed by Loretta Wittman, the play tells the true story of the “Radium Dial Girls,” who worked in a factory painting clocks and watches with radium in the 1920s and 30s.
The play opens with energy and promise as the women accept high-paying jobs from an company that prides itself in offering employment to women. But company officials assure the women that radium has no negative side effects — it might even be a miracle substance that would improve health. So when the women work with the radioactive paint, and even lick the tips of their paintbrushes to produce a fine point, they don’t realize that their jobs will lead to illness and death.
These Shining Lives tells the story of these women as they summon the courage to stand up to the company and fight against its claim that it has not poisoned them. Sydnee Smith ’20, noted the difficulty of playing characters that represent real people. “Because I’ve never felt sickness in the way that they have, I have to really think about where something is hurting or what is supposed to hurt,” Sydnee said.
When selecting plays, the theatre department typically works on a four-year arc in order to provide opportunities for students to try all different types of work, Wittman said. “We probably all have a list of shows that we really like and hope at some point in our career we get to do,” Wittman said. When she saw These Shining Lives a few years back, it made her list. She was inspired by its poetic nature along with the strong female roles presented in the show.
Wittman hopes that the audience will leave realizing that they should not be afraid to stand up for what is right, even if it may lead them through difficult times.
Sami pointed out that these women were not just people written down in history – they had a major impact on the world. Because of the tragic outcome of their work in the watch factory, the world gained knowledge of radium and how to treat this type of poisoning. The knowledge and studies that came from these women were crucial to saving lives of those impacted by nuclear warfare in World War II. “If they had just gone away quietly, which is what the company wanted them to do, there might have been many more horrific instances because the voices of these women were not heard,” Wittman explained.
These Shining Lives will run from February 23-26, 2017. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets can be purchased at the LC Box Office or online at Etix.com.