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Fall Production of ‘Radium Girls’ Shines

Kelly Slonaker

This fall, the theater program put on a fantastic production based on real life events. Radium Girls, by award-winning playwright and teaching artist D.W. Gregory, tells the story of the women who made labor history and unknowingly put their health—and lives— at risk while working with radium to paint watch dials.

The story begins in 1926: Radium is a miracle cure, Madame Curie an international celebrity, and luminous watches the latest rage—until the girls who paint those watch dials begin to die. Based on the true story of the women and men who worked for the U.S. Radium Corporation in Orange, NJ, Radium Girls is a fast-paced stage play split into 20 scenes and spanning over two decades. It is a wry examination of the commercialization of science and the twin American obsessions with the pursuit of health and wealth. Co-directors Sarah Armstrong and Keiko Mathewson noted, “This story goes beyond creating a great night of theater. We chose this play because it represents real women who lived and died a mere 100 years ago.” They continued, “It is difficult to comprehend the depth of the pain these women endured, both physically and emotionally. We hope that after watching the play, the audience leaves the theater inspired by the story to see the immeasurable value of each human life. The world needs that of us.”

Amazingly, the entire production went up in only six weeks. Eighteen students took on 27 roles and gave outstanding performances, bringing life and a voice to the women who suffered from radium poisoning. Sixth Form students Qixiu (Neil) Yao and Bella Carioscia took the stage for one of their last student performances, in opposing roles as President of the U.S. Radium Corporation Arthur Roeder and dial-painter-cum-labor-advocate Grace Fryer, respectively. Neil ’22 shared, “I've gotten to know my role, Arthur Roeder, a lot during the past weeks. He is far more complex than just the slimy, corporate 'villain' of the story, who desperately tries to cover up what he did just so he can keep up the flow into his coffers. Roeder couldn't believe that radium would be harmful to begin with and didn't realize what he had overlooked and ignored, either consciously or subconsciously, throughout his career until he told the story in a final attempt to justify himself to his daughter.”

Bella ’22 loved the camaraderie of performing with peers and spoke about how she dug deep to convey the emotions her character Grace was feeling. “I had an absolute blast not only playing Grace Fryer, but also being a part of such an amazing, fun-loving group of people,” she said. “I was so excited to attend practice each night, try on costumes, review lines, and just have bonding time to make the scenes appear more natural. Despite this enthusiasm, portraying the role of Grace Fryer was difficult and intimidating to approach at first. Her character has such depth—from her fun-loving demeanor with her husband as she obsesses over wallpaper, to her serious roles in court, to her vunerable moments with her mother. Although I had to transform into Grace each night during rehearsal, our natures are very similar—young girls surrounded by people who care about them.”

This was the first time putting up a play for many members of the technical crew, and they did a phenomenal job. The fast-paced play requires switching between scenes quickly and the crew made the transitions seamless. During the performances, the technical crew runs the entire show, making sure actors are where they need to be, the lighting and sound are executed timely and correctly, and props are set up and broken down according to each unique scene. It’s no easy feat and their efforts fully immerse the audience in the story. It was Stage Manager Fiona Mulheren ’23’s first time in the role and she was grateful to her peers for their collaboration. “Despite the short six weeks of time allotted to us to put together a detailed play, we worked together as a cast and crew to create a memorable show. With most of my experience being in costumes for theater productions, I was brand new to the role as Stage Manager. It was a big change for me, but my peers helped make the transition a smooth one. It’s a lot of responsibility, but they were always there to answer any questions I had, play-related or otherwise!”

The Performing Arts Department went a step further to bring the play to life for the whole school: they arranged for the playwright herself to spend an entire day with Canterbury students on October 18. D.W. Gregory is a playwright and educator residing in Washington D.C. Her work examines and critiques American culture with a political lens and comedic twist and has won and been nominated for numerous awards. As a teaching artist and artist-in-residence, she also writes for youth theater. She is a member of the Dramatists’ Guild, an affiliated writer with The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, and an affiliated artist with NNPN. Her play Radium Girls been produced over 800 times in the United States and abroad and has received several accolades, including Best New Play of 1999–2000 according to the Newark Star-Ledger, winner of Best Production at The Burlington Players AACTFEST in 2013, recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Production Grant, and recognition as a Finalist at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, as well as the New Harmony Project.

During School Meeting, D.W. gave students and faculty an introduction to the play and shared her methods and inspiration for writing it, fueled by her desire to both honor the women who fought for their rights and health and to highlight the staggering effects of corporate greed on company employees. Following School Meeting, D.W. joined Theology classes for engaging discussions about ethics and morals, taught a Fundamentals of Writing Workshop with Third Form English students and an Advanced Writing Workshop with AP Literature and SUPA Creative Nonfiction students, worked with Canterbury’s student-actors on character development for the play, and led a writing workshop for faculty.

Co-chair of the English Department Madelaine Lord was grateful for the unique opportunity for students to speak directly with the play’s author. “D.W.’s visit provided a chance to see the creator behind the works which we consume, relate to, and analyze. Bringing this kind of perspective to our students is invaluable so they can see themselves in the same roles.” Neil ’22 echoed the sentiment, saying, “The opportunity to work with the playwright herself immensely aided me in achieving this understanding of Roeder as a character and the play as a whole.”

We are so grateful to D.W. Gregory for her time and insight. Bravo to the entire cast and crew for a job very well done!