It’s 1915 and a room of women at the U.S. Radium Corporation paint luminous dials onto watches and get cancer from exposure to radium. The corporation won’t admit fault so the women have to cope with what little strength they have left. Flat Earth Theatre continues their season of plays about “progress and peril” with D. W. Gregory’s harrowing RADIUM GIRLS (playing @ Charlestown Working Theater through Sept. 19th).
It’s 2015, exactly one hundred years later, where women in a closed, unventilated space spray paint (containing asbestos, arsenic, chromium and beryllium) onto computer components and semiconductors for MyPhones, MyPads and MyWatches. My Lord! They, too, get cancer or mercury poisoning and deliver babies with birth defects. THIS IS NOT PART OF THE PLAY. This is happening NOW.
Friends of mine think they’ve heard this somewhere. They assume I’m talking about China. No, this is Central Valley, California. Just like the women in the play, the (male) technicians wear lead aprons. Just like the play, the corporations deny responsibility. So you may ask, could they not turn to the government for help in this day and age. Surely the government ought to be protecting women this time around.
National Public Radio has aired stories about women workers in danger in 2012, 2014 and most recently in July, 2015. The NPR weekend investigative reporting show called REVEAL zeroed in on Apple iPhones and the women in the Cupertino, California plant inhaling N-Hexane and Benzene. In another similar California plant, OSHA recommended “better ventilation.”
In fact, according to the Center For Public Integrity, government bureaucracies like OSHA have OKed air samples in these workspaces (and outside!) which test way over the legal limit for lead. If there’s a facility near you, like Digital Equipment Corp. in Hudson, Mass or Monsanto Chemical in Everett, Mass. the “federal limits” are unenforceable. And the Feds can’t even find out what chemicals are being vented into the air because the semi-conductor industry is protected by “proprietary” laws against revealing “trade secrets” in their formulas.
With all the rallies about women’s rights to equal pay and reproductive freedom, the right to a safe work environment plummets down on the list. Thank you, FLAT EARTH, for bringing the issue to light again with RADIUM GIRLS. This is the second play about the dial painters that I’ve seen. Both are pretty much the same, except Gregory’s play opens up to include Marie Curie, who makes both a public appearance and a private one in a nightmare… and Gregory delves into the guilt of one of the bad guys who “drank the Kool-Aid himself.”
Plays (and movies) about good guys being victimized are problematic because so much of the script is spent on hand-wringing and the grueling details of their plight. In this case, the women are getting sicker and sicker. Scenes play over and over illustrating for instance that court dates keep getting postponed or that another scientific theory has surfaced as they get weaker. Actresses are given lines like: “My folks didn’t raise me to make trouble… I did what I was told.”
Films like SILKWOOD and plays like Flat Earth’s recent production of THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION are the exceptions: Every scene holds excitement because the protagonist is fighting back. In RADIUM GIRLS, a lot of the scenes drag because of the nature of the beast. That’s a playwright problem because Gregory gives the best scenes to the lawyers.
Director Lindsay Eagle ups the ante in RADIUM GIRLS by having an all female cast. Some negotiate their “pants” roles better than others. It’s not as easy as you might think. It requires inordinate skill for a woman to portray a man. Just ask the inimitable Peggy Shaw of Split Britches.