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Theater Review: These Shining Lives

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Sally Sefton’s production of Melanie Marnich’s “These Shining Lives” is set in the 1920’s-30’s, a time when Rudolph Valentino and Louise Brooks were household names, “Beer Barrel Polka (Roll Out the Barrel” was a top five hit tune and expressions like “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” and “I’m Aces” were casually tossed around. A painful, little known piece of history during this era is the horrific plight of the so-called “Radium Girls.” These female factory workers received radiation poisoning from painting the dials of watches and experienced grueling side effects. Marnich’s play, an unearthed jewel flush with beautiful dialog and a passion for its subject matter, is given life and considerable dramatic weight by Sefton and her extraordinary cast.

Camille Erdman stars as Catherine, a new employee at the Radium Dial company. Catherine’s loving husband (played by Carver Glomb) suggests a happy home life, while her newfound friendships with three lively colleagues (played by Malia Jalbert, Marley Mehring and Taylor Takitani) are full of personal escape and sisterly bonding. The first act is so bubbly and flush with welcome touches of light comedy, one can almost overlook how carefully Marnich foreshadows what’s ahead.

Setting a play during this era is an obvious risk, particularly if the cast isn’t up to the demands of historical accuracy and conveying the period. The greatest compliment I can give the cast is that there’s tonal control to both their characterizations and their vocalizing the 20’s-era dialog. Everyone on stage captures the vocal cadences of the era, a tall order for any actor.

Edrman makes Catherine somehow both fragile and fierce. It’s a dazzling performance. There’s fire in Mehring’s compelling work, while Jalbert and Takitani take roles that start off as comic sidekicks and give them genuine soulfulness. The four leads create an essential chemistry and an engaging group. Glomb is charming playing Erdman’s husband, Javi Frith is excellent as the no-nonsense Mr. Reed and Zachary Kubo is perfect as both the Radium radio announcer and an attorney. Many in the supporting cast play multiple roles and everyone excels in their work.

There’s visual precision in Sefton’s staging, an approach that shifts in the second act, suggesting the protagonist’s shift from officious duty to seeking justice and survival. The radium is brilliantly introduced into the story via a song by a trio of faux-Andrews Sisters, who act as a sort of Greek Chorus for the production. Then there’s the set and lighting design by Todd Van Amburgh, with towering sheets of glass that stretch to the ceiling, adorned with clocks. For the first act, it’s a striking visual that seems to celebrate and bring light to the corporate world these women share. By act two, these initially breathtaking set pieces grow to resemble prison doors, with the clocks seeming to mock the women below.

A visual of the radium causing Catherine’s skin to glow in the dark is brought to life through a simple effect that drew shocked gasps from the audience. The story overall, building to a court case, dissolving relationships and unsolvable medical horrors, brings to the mind the Karen Silkwood case.

The subject matter is a tough one but don’t let me give you the impression that the show is depressing or too much to bear. A scene where Erdman and Mehring bare their character’s frightened grief and share an unguarded embrace is wrenching, as it should be. It reminds me of something Roger Ebert once said about those too chicken to sit through “Leaving Las Vegas”- “Great movies aren’t depressing, only bad ones.” If “These Shining Lives” gives your emotions a workout, then it’s working exactly as it should. This one engrosses right as it breaks your heart at the same time. This is a story I hadn’t heard before and was grateful to experience.

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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