Friday, September 14, 2012

Luminous "These Shining Lives" Lights Up Heartland Theatre

At the beginning of Melanie Marnich's "These Shining Lives," the main character, a woman named Catherine Donohue, steps forward to tell us that her story is not a fairy tale, even though it begins like one, and it's not a tragedy, even though it ends like one. That establishes some major points in this play -- that time is precious, that this will not be a straightforward narrative, and that the real Catherine Donohue may be long gone, but she has still has something to say, something she will say, directly to us.

Marnich frames her story around women: Catherine and three friends named Charlotte, Frances and Pearl, who work together at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, in the 1920s and early 30s. These ladies bond over their shared work, enjoying a sense of independence and financial security as working women, but their joy is short-lived as, one by one, they begin to feel ill, to fall apart physically as a result of the poisonous radium-laced powder they work with. The company hired only women, and even though they knew the risks presented by radium, instructed their workers to sharpen their tiny paintbrushes by licking them before every stroke, as they painted with radium to make watch and clock dials glow in the dark.

Catherine's story is real. The real Catherine Donahue decided to fight the company that denied any wrongdoing, to try to get a legal and moral victory even as she wasted away to nothing, physically broken but spiritually unbowed. For the Heartland Theatre production of the play, directed by Don LaCasse, lovely Colleen Longo plays Catherine with joy and spirit, making her end even more tragic.

She also shows good chemistry with Paula Nowak as feisty Charlotte, Reena Artman as gentle Frances, and Christine Juet as goofy Pearl, the one who keeps popping up with bad jokes. LaCasse has not directed them to physically indicate the characters' decline, meaning they don't adopt the withered postures or twisted limbs I've seen in previous productions. A bit of that might've been helpful just to illustrate the difference, but the message is still clear: These are young women, made old well before their time.

The two men in the cast are also good, with Jared Kugler showing warmth and honesty as Catherine's husband, among other roles, and Todd Wineburner tackling the good (a lawyer who fights for them) and the bad (the boss at the watch factory).

Again and again, LaCasse's production brings home the time message. You can hear it in Isaac Mandel's sound design, with the ticking clock, and see it in the surrealistic watch pieces painted on the back wall of the set (designed originally by Michael Pullin and then put into play by Jake Wasson.) Harrison Hohnholt's lighting design is also important to this luminous story.

In the end, "These Shining Lives" is poignant, tragic and important. We shouldn't be so callous with the lives around us, whether it's part of the job or not.

A panel discussion on the issues raised in the play will follow the 2 pm matinee performance on Sunday, September 16. Panelists will include Sandra Harmon, Emeritus Professor of History and Women’s Studies Program at ISU and Ed Carroll, Professor of History at Heartland Community College, who is originally from Ottawa and whose family was affected by the tragedy. This discussion is free and open to the public, whether you've seen the play or not.

If you have seen "'These Shining Lives" and want to learn more about the Ottawa Radium Girls, the 1987 documentary "Radium City" is now available on Youtube in its entirety. What that documentary will tell you is that women like Catherine worked, women like Catherine died, women like Catherine were buried, and then their remains were dug up and tested, the factory (housed in a former high school) was turned into a meat locker (yes, a MEAT locker, with people's food stored there) and eventually razed, and radioactive rubble dumped all over town. Who did the dumping? More citizens of Ottawa, male this time, once again not protected properly from the toxic mess they were working with.

In 2011, a statue was commissioned to memorialize the Radium Girls, and Chicago Magazine reported that the radioactive pollution remained in Ottawa.

By Melanie Marnich

Heartland Theatre Company

Director: Don LaCasse
Scenic Designer/Tech Director: Michael Pullin and Jake Wasson
Lighting Designer: Harrison Hohnholt
Stage Manager/Board Operator: Andrea Davis
Properties Designer; Melissa Mullen
Sound Designer: Isaac Mandel
Costume Designer: Jeanine Fry
Assistant Director: Jared Sanders

Cast: Colleen Longo, Reena Artman, Paula Nowak, Christine Juet, Jared Kugler, Todd Wineburner.

Running time: 95 minutes, played without intermission

Remaining performances: September 14-15 and 20-22 at 7:30 pm and September 16 and 23 at 2 pm.

For reservation information, click here.


  1. Thanks so much for this account, Julie. I loved the play when I read it and when I saw it last week at Heartland! I had first learned about the "radium girls" in the documentary film you mention, Radium City, when it was shown at the Music Box theatre in Chicago. Whew, what a story.

    I am so impressed and grateful that The Bloomington and Normal Trades and Labor Assembly chose to sponsor this play at Heartland! Thanks to them and to Mike Matejka for his note in the theatre program.

  2. The play has been made even more important this election year, with unions under fire and politicians trying to tell us they don't serve a purpose. But the one good thing that came out of the Radium Girls and their terrible story was better standards for workplace safety. Like the Triangle Factory Fire before, the Radium Girls show that people are too important to just throw away, that regular people's lives shouldn't come so cheap to the people with the cash at the top of the ladder. We need to remember and we need to make sure it doesn't happen again.

    That documentary is just devastating. The children... Horrifying that in the late 80s the big shots were STILL not listening.