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These Shining Lives

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble at Raven Theatre. By Melanie Marnich. Dir. Rachel Walshe. With ensemble cast. One might expect the joy of painting tiny numbers...

Photograph: Anthony Robert Lapenna
GREETING CARDS Rebecca Spence refuses to tip her hand.

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble at Raven Theatre. By Melanie Marnich. Dir. Rachel Walshe. With ensemble cast.

One might expect the joy of painting tiny numbers onto watch faces—a hand-done vocation for factory girls well into the 1930s—to quickly exhaust itself. Not so for Shining Lives’ peppy band of Depression-era working women. Newly liberated from the doldrums of domesticity, this motley quartet of coworkers builds a bustling life around its shared workstation in the Radium Dial factory. Yet the gaiety of newfound independence dissipates when the radioactive paint they use begins to wreak havoc on their health, forcing one woman into an arduous lawsuit against the Man.

Marnich, whose play premiered in D.C. last spring, has an ear for warm, natural dialogue that eschews snarky quips and truisms widespread in less authentic scripts set in the same period (“We’re on Easy Street, I tell ya” jars as a notable exception). Though never transcendent, the play’s linguistic honesty satisfies, as does its even more refreshing ability to finish up just as it veers into Ken Burnsian, triumphalist schmaltz. Each member of Rivendell’s ensemble adds beautifully to the pathos. As reserved moralist Frances, Jessie Fisher proves particularly illuminating; few actors could speak such volumes while portraying a persnickety introvert.

Jessica Kuehnau’s set provides a touch of its own storytelling. Early on, when the going’s still good, the ladies dash out one afternoon for a beach romp. Even in their revelry, though, they sit surrounded by Kuehnau’s beautiful but claustrophobic world of steeply angled wooden beams, overused household heirlooms and constantly ticking timepieces. The scenery never releases these allegedly free women from its grasp: Kuehnau’s astute work takes Marnich’s script and spins the yarn yet further.

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