What they didn't know, hurt them

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

One does not naturally associate themes of feminism and workers' rights with high school theater, but both are driven home in the drama Radium Girls, performed at Oak Park and River Forest High School last weekend and continuing this Thursday and Friday. Written by D.W. Gregory, the play tells the real-life story of a 1920s New Jersey watch factory where young women, some merely teenagers, paint luminescent faces on watches, and in doing so, are exposed to extremely dangerous levels of radiation. When this toxicity begins to affect their health, they decide to fight their former employer for the compensation they believe they deserve.

"I think it's great to have a show that portrays strong women," said Julie Cozette, OPRF junior who plays the lead radium girl, Grace Fryer, from healthful youth through sickly womanhood, with understated power. "Every day, I learn how strong they were, and even when they were physically weak, they were mentally strong."

When the radium girls sue their employer, U.S. Radium, it becomes a media sensation. Two reporters, played by Emmanuel Flores and Miranda Montgomery, provide charm and wit and needed levity. Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, the play raises public awareness, and the real-life radium girls' efforts ultimately had an impact on U.S. labor laws. Some credit them with launching the modern-day labor movement.

Fiona Casper-Strauss, OPRF senior who convincingly plays radium girl Kathryn Schaub, was surprised at the lack of precautions taken in the painting department at the watch factory. 

"It made me think about women in other countries exposed to toxic materials at young ages," she noted, "and they don't have lawyers."

While the radium girls fight their case against the company whose practices made them ill, U.S. Radium's side of the story is not a clear-cut tale of corporate greed.

"It's hard to pin a bad guy in the show," Cozette said. "All the characters are human and dynamic."

It is unclear, for example, at what point the factory knows about the dangers of radium. In fact, there is a time the world of science believed radium was not only harmless, but a cure for cancer and could be drunk as a tonic for vitality.

Thomas Weinheimer, an OPRF junior who plays U.S. Radium President Arthur Roeder, captures the moral struggle of a corporate executive, both the business persona, as well as his more human, conflicted, guilt-ridden side.  

His wife, Diane Roeder, played by OPRF senior Patti Meadors, also personifies different sides, the dutiful 1920s mother and spouse who questions her husband about right and wrong while also showing loving support.

When Meadors first read the script, she some of the dialogue was dated compared to women's roles today.

"I am a strong feminist," she said. "But I had fun playing the wife. I will carry her with me forever. She stands up and is her husband's moral compass."

And standing up is really what this play is about — the radium girls fighting for compensation and acknowledgment by the company, the people who support them through their effort to make company leaders actually admit wrongdoing.

"Even now, a century later, women are getting silenced," Cozette said. "The radium girls persisted and I think it shows you have to fight for what you believe in, even if sexism is against you."

Radium Girls is directed by OPRF instructor Linda Burns.

There are two more shows this week at OPRF's Little Theatre: Thursday, May 18, and Friday, May 19, at 7:30 p.m.

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