Radium Girls and its Revitalization

OLIVIA ZINN

 

Several students and select alumni of Bethany College brought Radium Girls to Wailes Theater this spring, a two-act play based on a true story. Written by D.W. Gregory, Radium Girls homes in on the tragedy that nearly 70 women and their families were faced with in the harsh 1920s and ‘30s: radium poisoning. The play has been produced approximately 800 times since its release, both in the United States and other countries such as Great Britain, Canada, Germany, and New Zealand, but this was the first time that Bethany had seen it–and it was a hit!

 

The narrative revolves around the adolescent life of Grace Fryer, a factory worker portrayed by senior theater major Yasmeene Henderson. As a young woman with delicate hands, Miss Fryer was hired by the U.S. Radium Corporation to paint watch dials. The factory, based in Orange County, New Jersey, was led by Arthur Roeder (Ethan Wilczynski) and Dr. Von Sochocky (Professor Travis Straub). The job was simple on paper: help the men at war by painting watch dials back home. Their pay was also generous compared to other employers, such as the bank that Grace considered. It all seemed great, almost too good to pass up–until the women noticed a severe change in their health.

 

After their conditions became a concern, more characters began to appear in the play and add even more flavor to the story. Mine, in particular, went by the name of Katherine Wiley. She certainly was an interesting individual to portray, making her professionalism known and revealing that it would be possible to represent the girls, as long as it worked for her. It was borderline manipulation, since she primarily longed for a pristine reputation and, as the director, proper publicity for the New Jersey Consumer’s League. There was even a time depicted in the play (Act 1, Scene 11) in which she, or I, completely abandoned a conversation to ease my way into the life that was, Miss Grace Fryer.

 

I must admit, I thoroughly enjoyed being cast as Miss Wiley, knowing that I have a similar love for the press and upholding elegance. I also gained a new understanding of the history of Orange County, NJ and how these women influenced that. Miss Wiley summed it up quite well, “Mr. Berry. Surely, you

 

can see. The U.S. Radium Corporation cares nothing about the girls it has poisoned–but the average housewife in Orange cares very deeply–and so do millions of other women across the country.”

 

Whom I consider being the opposite of Miss Wiley is Diane Roeder (Mecca Collins), wife to U.S. Radium Corp. President Arthur Roeder. Although a delicate and naive housewife, her personality and her relationship with her husband quickly became visible in Act 2, Scene 7. She realizes what kind of person he is, after being lied to and verbally abused. This scene was a cast favorite, not only because it was a gateway to the conclusion but also because of dramatic emotion that the couple expressed; a man screaming at his wife, telling her that, as a woman, she doesn’t know anything, and Mrs. Roeder, scared as can be.

 

Director and Adjunct Professor Evan Oslund also noticed a type of professionalism within the 20-person cast early on, one that stood out from other plays he’s directed in the past. “I loved hearing what the cast found out about their characters [through extensive research beyond the script]. They were genuinely interested in their roles and the play in general,” Oslund said. “That is true dedication. I never specifically asked them to do that, but that just shows how professional each actor was.”

 

Before attending the show, many may have not known about the play’s historical connotation, nor that the tragedy occurred at all, but I believe that’s what generated such raw emotion. From the deaths of Kathryn Schaub (Sydney Sands) and Irene Rudolph (Civanna Tomes), it truly is a story that can easily invoke tears and yet, still be light-hearted and witty, as the reporters try everything to “find that angle” and “make it big.” Certain scenes tended to be lighter than others, of course (Act 1, Scene 4 being one of those). As Grace and Tommy argue over wallpaper for the baby’s room, Tommy points out that they aren’t married yet, nor is Grace pregnant. It’s an adorable scene to watch, one that doesn’t focus on the tragedy that will come, rather one that creates a window in which the audience can relate to the protagonist through her soon-to-be husband.

 

In total, the play ran approximately two and a half hours with a 15-minute intermission in between the acts. Despite its length, it was nowhere near a drag. Select faculty members of the college believe that Radium Girls was exactly what Bethany needed, especially as it was the first performance since the pandemic with more than two actors. Over 300 people attended in just four nights, making enough profit to afford a musical next spring.

 

As for a personal note, I’ve never been a part of such a strong and talented cast. I’ve also never seen anyone be so supportive of theater as Bethany is. We certainly created something special, both on stage and behind the scenes. There were times in which holding in a laugh behind the curtain was simply not possible (cue Dr. Flinn’s rugged cough), which clearly brought life to us as actors and the author’s work. Other moments nearly brought a tear to our eyes, knowing that after four long months of rehearsal, we finally did it. “[We] brought the issue of radium poisoning to public awareness,” Katherine Wiley, Act 2, Scene 14.