The first decades of the American 20th century were filled with contradiction. In some rural corners, medicine shows hawked cold remedies that were a quarter alcohol and hair tonics that contained frightening levels of lead. Meanwhile, the U.S. at large was in thrall to the burgeoning scientific breakthroughs at the tail end of the industrial age. But these two belief systems had more in common than one might realize.
Radium Girls was the name given to a story that caught the American public's imagination in the 1920s, and it's also that of D.W. Gregory's play about the topic, first staged in 2000 and now brought to life vividly and sharply by the Cal Poly Humboldt Department of Dance, Music and Theatre. And while the girls' tale doesn't involve them buying miracle tonic, their employers, in tandem with their attorneys and apologists, are even more cynical and insidious.
Radium Girls is brought to life by director James Peck, who's noted for his physical theater background at Dell'Arte, and who brings a great deal of sly, inventive visual and auditory devices to the narrative. All but two members of the cast play multiple roles, something not uncommon but in this instance also not distracting at all.
Radium now has no safe commercial scientific applications, but was something of a miracle in an age that had many in science and medicine. Co-discovered by the famed Marie Curie (who briefly appears, played by Izzy Waring) in 1911, radium was a breakthrough with all sorts of uses in the modern world, though it also led to her demise.
As so we find Grace, Kathryn and Irene (Sophia Escudero, Miah Carter, Kyrstie Obiso) at the start of the 1920s, teenaged New Jersey "factory girls" employed by the U.S. Radium Corp. who toil painting luminescent dials by hand. In the 21st century, the idea of finely pointing their radium-tainted brushes by molding the bristles with their mouths while painting is horrific, on par with the idea of rolling around in spent nuclear waste at a Superfund site. But at the play's outset, the company's bosses — one a scientist and another a rising young executive — make clear that this is modern, important, forward-looking work. It beats toiling in a textile mill.
Irene, felled by a bleeding mouth followed by complications, is the first of the three girls sickened by side effects. Kathryn and Grace soon follow with various bone and jaw ailments, but it is Grace — a great performance by Escudero — with whom we spend the most time in the two acts, especially in scenes with her husband Berry played by Gavin Martin. This includes her battles with U.S. Radium; we also have plenty of scenes with the management of the company, including an impressive Benjamin Wider as Arthur Roeder, who is presented as a more principled person than some of the other ruthless suits.
With the spare and well-realized set design from designer Carl McGahan, the many cutaways in Radium Girls involving fast-talking newspaper reporters and other supporting characters are imbued with a breezy Jazz Age energy. The cast largely nails some urban East Coast cadences of the era, and as an eloquently oily attorney and executive for U.S. Radium, Jake Hyslop has glib unctuousness that brings to mind a young Joseph P. Kennedy, another villain of the age.
Grace and Kathryn eventually find an ambitious female Progressive-era consumer advocate named Miss Wiley (played by Kristie Obiso) who pushes forward their legal action against the company to pursue damages, one who wants to play out the case in the media as much as in the courtroom. She also warns Grace to keep a level, quiet head, since the public does not want to see "an angry woman," even in the face of a company poisoning its young workers.
Recent decades have hardened us to subterfuge like Big Tobacco finding scientists to offer up misleading data about nicotine, or science-adjacent figures on cable news dismissing climate change models. There are prescient glimpses in Radium Girls not only of desperate corporate figures trying to pull one over, but of cynical and conniving academics offering their services. I shan't spoil the poignant final line of dialogue in Radium Girls but it speaks volumes about a well-meaning individual who followed the wrong guideposts in life.
Cal Poly Humboldt's production of Radium Girls plays Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. through April 1, with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on April 2. Call (707) 826-3928 or visit centerarts.humboldt.edu.
David Jervis (he/him) is an Arcata-based freelance writer and editor.