These Shining Lives: Heartbreaking real-life drama

Time is running out for watch painters Stacia Rice, Ann Michels, and Jamila Anderson

Time is running out for watch painters Stacia Rice, Ann Michels, and Jamila Anderson

at History Theatre
through June 1

Gainful employment these days comes with certain reasonable expectations: workplace safety, a proper degree of dignity and respect, and the presence of that guy who lingers in your office doorway and won't stop talking about his weekend.

The women depicted in These Shining Lives are free of the doorway lurker, but they face far more serious and harrowing consequences from their labor. Their plight in Melanie Marnich's new play (based on real events) is exemplified by Catherine Donohue (Stacia Rice). We meet her at home the morning of her first day of work at the Radium Dial Watch Company, where she will hand-paint numbers on watches to supplement the construction-worker income of nice-guy hubby Tom (Brian Goranson).

There's nothing much here in the way of a set, and director Ron Peluso ably manages scene changes with minimal props (a couple of tables, some chairs). Next thing we know we're at the factory, where cautiously optimistic Catherine meets her co-workers, all of whom are conveniently reducible to a single character trait: the bad-joke-cracking Pearl (Jamila Anderson), the hard-ass broad with inevitable heart of gold Charlotte (Ann Michels), and the company conscience (i.e., judgmental prude) Frances (Simone Perrin).

Marnich is sketching in broad strokes here, but Peluso and the cast provide an easygoing tempo to all the banter, and there's a genuine tension beneath the surface sparked by the unspoken fact that these women were unusual in the 1020s and '30s for tackling this kind of industrial work. That friction is soon upped when Charlotte provides a demonstration of their technique, which includes repeatedly wetting a paint brush in one's mouth to smooth it, dipping it in radium dye, painting, then repeating. And repeating.

Yeah, radium. In the setup to this 90-minute one-act, there's a definite sense of a show struggling to produce something distinctive from the outlines of history, but the ensemble pulls ranks and something deeper emerges. Rice raises the stakes in scenes alone with Goranson that distort their earlier happy-couple simplicity. First Catherine notes that her clothes and hands have begun to glow in the dark. Later, she begins to complain that her body doesn't feel right. Goranson's Tom doesn't want to allow the possibility that anything is amiss, despite Catherine's increasingly steely conviction. A picture emerges of two people in different stages of understanding that things have gone horribly wrong (it helps to remember that, when Catherine first took her gig at Radium Dial, she was 19 and a mother of two).

What follows is heartbreaking, and ultimately daringly devoid of triumph. Despite a reassuring letter from the company that the ladies are working with "pure radium only" (gee, thanks, boss), Catherine and her cohorts become increasingly sick. A fantastic moment follows, when she and her co-workers find a doctor (Goranson) willing to diagnose them: Each of the four women stands in partial spotlight while Goranson reads to them their diagnoses of exotic cancers, each word a coffin nail, each lovely face staring into the abyss of eternity.

Finally, Catherine takes the company to court (some drama over her case ensues, but gratefully it's not overly drawn out), though her life and death concern us more. Tom squares off with Catherine's former boss Mr. Reed (Julian Bailey) in a moment of high-wire righteousness, but it's a bit earlier that Rice steers our emotions into raw and unexpected territory. Sitting, too tired to stand, the Reaper at her heels, and staring down the ruin of the small dreams she's dared to entertain, Catherine breaks. Her children call out for her, and with the knowledge that her time is short, Catherine tells them in the starkest terms possible to leave her alone. Catherine seems brittle and broken, pushing the shallow enthusiasm that came before into a place harder, darker, more adult and eternal. All those watch faces Catherine painted couldn't buy her nearly enough time.