"Shining Lives: A Musical" Review - A Highly Recommended, Poignant, Relevant Must-See

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to see Shining Lives: A Musical (book and lyrics by Jessica Thebus, music by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert, based upon the play These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich) at Northlight Theatre in Skokie. The play begins in 1922, with Catherine (Johanna McKenzie Miller), a young mother who applies for — and lands — a job painting watch dials for a local manufacturer, Radium Dial Company, in Ottawa, Illinois. Initially, she takes the job for the additional income it affords her family — at the time she accepts it they are just barely scraping by, and she thinks that the job will be temporary, just until her husband, Tom (Alex Goodrich), starts to bring in more money — though she quickly finds that she likes being a part of the workforce. As she makes clear, it allows her to be someone other than somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother and somebody’s daughter. She also finds that she likes her colleagues, three of whom — Frances (Jess Godwin), Pearl (Tiffany Topol) and Charlotte (Bri Sudia) — quickly become close friends.

Tiffany Topol as Pearl, Jess Godwin as Frances, Bri Sudia as Charlotte, Johanna KcKenzie Miller as Catherine (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

While, at the start of the job, she does express some reservations about working with the radium compound with which they are painting the glow-in-the-dark watch dials — especially since the women are pointing the paintbrushes by putting them in their mouths after they have already been dipped into the compound, enabling them to more quickly and easily paint the fine numbers onto the dials — her supervisor, Mr. Reed (Matt Mueller), tells her that it is safe, which seems to only be confirmed by the Radium Dial Company doctor, Dr. Rowntree (Erik Hellman). Dr. Rowntree tells the women that not only is it perfectly safe, but that radium has many well-documented health benefits, including the ability to cure a myriad of diseases. With her concerns seemingly put to rest, she and the rest of the ladies continue their routine of painting hundreds upon hundreds of radium watch dials on a daily basis for years.

Though there are a couple of times when the company doctor is seemingly randomly called in to test the workers — once in 1924 and again in 1928 — the company doesn’t share the results with the workers or express a concern for the workers’ safety, nor do the workers really experience any ill effects. In fact, at one point the company president issues a letter that is addressed to the workers to allay any fears and “gossip,” in which he attempts to reassure the workers of the compound’s safety and that the workers’ safety is the company’s number one priority.

The Cast of "Shining Lives: A Musical" at Northlight Theatre (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

However, in the early 1930s, after working in the factory painting hundreds of watch dials with the radium compound on a daily basis for about a decade, the ill effects of being exposed to the radium begins to rear its ugly head. Catherine starts to experience a pain in her leg that, as she puts it, makes it feel like her bones are breaking. After some pressing of her colleagues as to whether they, too, have been experiencing any odd symptoms of their own, she finds that, in fact, they all have.

When they finally find a doctor, Dr. Dallitsch (Erik Hellman), who is willing to level with them and acknowledge the link between their working with the radium compound and their symptoms, they learn that they all have been poisoned by the radium and that it is terminal in all of their cases.

Johanna McKenzie Miller as Catherine, Bri Sudia as Charlotte, Jess Godwin as Frances, Matt Mueller as Mr. Reed, Tiffany Topol as Pearl (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Despite the company’s rather obvious desire for all of them to remain quiet, as is stated in the play, this drives them to pursue a lawsuit against the company, a case that is taken on by attorney Leonard Grossman (Matt Mueller). As perhaps can be expected — particularly when it comes to lawsuits launched against large corporations, even today — there is a lot of back-and-forth with the company and their attorneys, who deny that there is any link and claim that the women were ill before they started their employment with the company. While it was a long and arduous process, their story and this case resulted in some significant change in the law — though, one could argue, that there is still much to be done and much that isn’t just, even today.

Bri Sudia as Charlotte, Jess Godwin as Frances, (standing) Matt Mueller as Mr. Reed & Tiffany Topol as Pearl & Johanna McKenzie Miller as Catherine (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

On the whole, Shining Lives: A Musical is an excellent, extremely well-acted play that I highly recommend. To me, it also serves as a statement about corporate responsibility and a warning that is indisputably as relevant today as it was when the case was playing out in papers, back in the 1930s. Corporations have a responsibility, first and foremost, to their workers, to ensure their health and safety. A company that does not agree with this, and that is willing to put its workers lives at risk, putting profit above all else — as Radium Dial Company undoubtedly did  — should not have a place in any community. A company that feels no responsibility to its own workers and their families, nor to the town in which it is located — as Radium Dial Company clearly did not — is not a positive addition and does not add value to a community, but rather serves as nothing more than a liability. Furthermore, it is up to local governments, big or small, rural or urban, to step up to the plate and look out for the health and well-being of those who elected them and entrusted them to make the right decisions. It is up to those governments to challenge the companies who would do harm to their community and its residents, and to support those workers and those residents to whom harm could have been done or has been done. If local governments and residents don’t step up and face down those corporations that would otherwise take advantage of them, it isn’t unfathomable that something like the story recounted in this production could happen again.

Shining Lives: A Musical runs through June 14, 2015 at Northlight Theatre, located at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, 9501 Skokie Boulevard in Skokie, Illinois, with an Open Captioned performance to take place on June 7, 2015 at 7:00 PM.

To purchase tickets or for additional information regarding Shining Lives: A Musical, including special events associated with this production, or for more information regarding Northlight Theatre and the upcoming 2015-2016 season, please visit the Northlight Theatre website. You may also purchase tickets to this production by calling the Box Office at 847-673-6300 or by visiting the Box Office during Box Office hours. Box Office hours are from 10 AM to 5 PM Monday through Friday, from Noon to 5 PM on Saturday and two hours prior to showtime on Sunday. Summer hours, which are in effect from Memorial Day to Labor Day, are from Noon to 5 PM Tuesday through Saturday.










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