The title is a grabber, provocative and catchy. Radium Girls might betoken futuristic science fiction. But D.W. Gregory's play, which is being presented by Saint Louis University Theatre, is rooted in historical fact. Set in the decade between 1918 and 1928, the story chronicles the fate of several women who were exposed to radiation poisoning while painting watch dials, for which radium was mixed with glow-in-the-dark paint — and how one of these victimized women sought restitution from her unknowing (and then uncaring) employer. Although Radium Girls is the kind of David vs. Goliath story we've seen many times before, there's always something cheering about watching the little person challenge an impervious monolith.
Much of the early action plays out in the factory of the United States Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey. The workers are playful young girls whose tomfoolery includes adorning their faces with the tainted paint that is about to shorten their lives. "The paint you've been playing with, it's very expensive," they are chastised. Indeed it is. During a visit to America by famed Polish chemist Madame Marie Curie, known for her pioneering discoveries in radioactivity, we learn that one gram of radium costs a whopping $100,000 (which in 1921 certainly was a lot of money).
Radium Girls takes us back to that heady era after the Great War when a victorious America was energized by innovations in science and industry. But lack of information about some of these innovations also led to great peril. When radium exposure made the workers ill, factory management went into denial mode. (One girl is told she has "a faulty jaw.") A worker named Grace Fryer (performed here by Taylor S. Steward) took the unprecedented and daring step of suing her employer. The USRC fought back from a lofty posture that "the public doesn't have much sympathy for an angry woman."
Without knowing all the facts of the story, it's hard to ascertain the accuracy of this compassionate portrayal of Fryer. But as a type, she smoothly slips into that valiant genre that lionizes crusading heroines such as Erin Brockovich and Lois Gibbs (anyone remember the Love Canal?). If the dialogue in these kinds of stories often seems to be too didactic and on-the-nose, perhaps that's due to the need to distill such convoluted issues into accessible terms.
In addition to detailing Fryer's litigation, Radium Girls attempts to evoke the carnival atmosphere of the Roaring Twenties. Two exaggerated and fanciful reporters fill in the exposition. More than 30 different characters are enacted by an ensemble of fourteen actors under the direction of Gary Wayne Barker. Jim Burwinkel has designed an admirably efficient unit set that allows for the play's scope. Video projections help to clarify the time frame.
Ultimately though, it is Radium Girls' trajectory — as opposed to its specifics — that most intrigues. Although perhaps there is some suspense as to whether the good Grace will die before her case comes to trial, by evening's end the outcome of the litigation is secondary. Instead the evening resounds with an almost nostalgic ring of familiarity. How many times in the past have we seen variations of this same story? How many times in the future will we see it again? So long as corporate profits claim precedence over individuals, there will always be an audience for morality plays like Radium Girls.