This lovely chamber musical about an ugly chapter in Illinois labor history shines by focusing on radiant friendships.
Melanie Marnich’s 2008 play These Shining Lives shone a new light on an ugly incident in American labor history that, when it was produced in 2009 by Chicago’s Rivendell Theatre, hit close to home in every sense. The subject was the Depression-era deaths of women employed by the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, about a 90-minute drive southwest of Chicago at the convergence of the Illinois and Fox Rivers.
The women had worked painting watch dials to glow, using radium powder; to increase their speed, and thus their pay, they were encouraged to moisten the tips of their brushes with their lips. When the eventual symptoms of years of ingesting radioactive material began to show, they were gaslighted by company doctors and execs; when one of the women took the company to court, it fought tooth and nail through years of appeals to deny responsibility for their illnesses.
But the beauty of Marnich’s play, and of its gorgeous new chamber-musical adaptation at Northlight (which commissioned the original play), is that it spends more time on the four women chosen to represent the whole than it does on legal proceedings. Catherine Donohue (Johanna McKenzie Miller), the eventual plaintiff, loves her work, both for the senses of accomplishment and independence it gives her and for the rich friendships she develops with the other girls at her table (each sharply outlined and beautifully sung by Jess Goodwin, Tiffany Topol and Bri Sudia).
Pluess and Dehnert’s absorbing acoustic score is played to the side of the mostly bare stage by pianist Chuck Larkin and the show’s male cast members, Alex Goodrich, Erik Hellman and Matt Mueller, who alternate between their onstage scenes and accompanying on guitar, banjo and mandolin. The songs take advantage of the four leads’ rich vocals to give voice to the women’s dreams of autonomy; even the courtroom sequence is more about the quartet’s supporting, and eventually succumbing to, the fight. It’s a small but, indeed, radiant story.
Northlight Theatre. Book and lyrics by Jessica Thebus. Music by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert. Directed by Thebus. With Johanna McKenzie Miller, Jess Godwin, Bri Sudia, Tiffany Topol. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.