Saturday, July 7, 2012

Auditions! Sunday and Monday Nights, Try Out for "These Shining Lives" at Heartland

Heartland Theatre Company will be holding auditions for "These Shining Lives," Melanie Marnich's poetic and uplifting play about women at work in Ottawa, Illinois, in the 1920s, painting luminous dials on watch faces, putting poison into their bodies with every breath they took, every paintbrush they touched.

In the play, Catherine Donohue and her friends are "Radium Girls," workers in a watch factory where they hand-paint numbers on the dials. The paint they're using contains radium, included to make the numbers glow in the dark. The U.S. Radium Company knew very well the stuff was deadly, but they continued to hide that fact for decades, as women like Catherine continued to lick their tiny radium-soaked paintbrushes before every stroke, just as their bosses instructed them, to keep the brush points sharp. Some even painted their hair or fingernails or even their teeth -- precursor to today's whiteners and brighteners -- with the same paint because they thought it was fun to turn off the lights and shine like a beacon in the dark when they got home.

Marnich's play shows both the joys of their work life -- making friends, earning money to contribute to their households, finding a sense of self-worth -- and the tragedy that turns vibrant young women into crones, ankles and hips and wrists splintering, spines bowed, jaws rotting, teeth and hair falling out, mouths filled with sores, riddled with anemia and leukemia, their bodies bent over like the Wicked Witch who pushed the poisoned apple on Snow White in the old fairytale. And the even bigger tragedy -- that the watch companies and U.S. Radium kept stalling and lying and trying to dodge responsibility for what they'd done -- resonates today with anybody who thinks federal regulations for occupational safety are unnecessary. Who thinks a big fat company like U.S. Radium wouldn't play exactly the same games today if they could get away with it?

For "These Shining Lives," the Radium Girls are represented by Catherine and her friends Charlotte, Frances and Pearl. Catherine's husband, Tom, her children, a few doctors, reporters and judges, and some of the brass at the Radium Dial Company are also characters in the play, with everyone except the actress playing Catherine taking on more than one role. Heartland is looking for 4 women and 2 men to fill those roles.

Auditions for director Don LaCasse will consist of cold readings from the script. Actors are asked to prepare to give a 1 to 1 1/2-minute contemporary monologue, although it is not mandatory. If you'd like to bring a headshot and resume, that would also be appreciated. Details are here, on Heartland's audition page.

This all takes place tomorrow, July 8, and Monday, July 9, from 7 to 9:30 pm on each night.

If you'd like to read more about the dark days when radium was peddled as a scientific miracle and how it all played out with these young women workers at watch factories, Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin, offered a series of illuminating pieces on the subject in March 2011 at her blog, Speakeasy Science. You can read The Radium Girls, Life in the Undark, and A Dazzle in the Bones by clicking on their titles, and find out about the forensic pathology as well as the case itself.

Author Bill Koralik also has materials to contribute on the subject; he is the co-author of a book called "Mass Media & Environmental Conflict," and chapter 8 of that book is offered here under the title "Radium Girls," including graphics and images to flesh out the story.

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