‘These Shining Lives’ illuminates a story of negligence, accountability

Sep 27, 2023

MARION — The cast and crew of the Marion Art Center’s production “These Shining Lives,” written by Melanie Marnich, aren’t telling a fictional story — they’re giving a glimpse into history.

“These Shining Lives” tells the story of the “Radium Girls,” women who worked at the Radium Dial Factory, a watch company in Ottawa, Illinois, in the 1920s.

The play follows 19-year-old factory worker Catherine Donohue, played by Kiah Allaire, as she navigates life as a working woman alongside husband Tom Donohue, played by Oliver Asker, and the issues she faced working with radium.

“This was a bunch of young women who joined the workforce, which was unusual in the 1920s and 30s, and they made really good money painting with radium paint,” said the show’s director Pippa Asker.

Radium is a radioactive element that glows in the dark that was used to paint luminous numbers on watch faces.

“They had to paint the numbers really fine,” said Ann-Marie Foley, who plays factory worker Pearl Payne in the show. “So they would lick the tip of the [paint brush] … and the company told them for years that radium is safe … eventually most of them died of different kinds of sarcomas.”

During the play, the women affected by radium poisoning seek a diagnosis from the Radium Dial Company’s on-staff doctor, played by Jack Boesen, who dismisses their complaints.

“I think a lot of women relate to going to a doctor, knowing something is wrong in your body … and being dismissed,” said Bethany Lamoureux, who plays factory worker Charlotte Purcell. “Having to fight, and keep going to doctors just to get them to believe you that there’s something wrong. I think that’s definitely something that women today are still fighting for.”

Asker hopes that the audience walks away from this show with a greater awareness of “a pivotal time in our history.”

“Basically this is a story of women who … fought through hard things to hold [negligent employers] accountable,” said Asker. “This led to a lot of … legislation to protect us from radioactivity.”

For Asker, who is no stranger to the director’s chair at the Marion Art Center, this show has been “one of the greatest experiences” she’s had in directing.

“These cast members are so easy to work with. They're talented and hardworking. They are learning those lines fast. They get along well and they have a good relationship,” she said. “I love creating community, I love bringing people together … we have 11 people in the cast, which spreads it out and gives more people the opportunity … to take part in community theater.”

Asker also highlighted the contributions of stage manager Suzie Kokkins, sound and lighting designers Steven McManus and Owen Osterday, and several members of the cast who brought their own expertise to the show.

“I love creating community, and I love creating a whole world and telling a story,” she said.

See “These Shining Lives” at the Marion Art Center on Oct. 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22, 27 and 28. Friday and Saturday shows start at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday matinees start at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for members and $23 for non-members. For more information, visit https://www.marionartcenter.org/events/these-shining-lives/?.