By Rivka Shavelson
After a year off stage due to COVID-19, Stern College Dramatics Society (SCDS) is back with their production of D.W. Gregory’s Radium Girls.
Upon entering the theatre, the tension and excitement was palpable as I walked in to review their final dress rehearsal. Upon seeing Director Reuven Russell, I ask him what he is most looking forward to in returning to the theater. He answers with no hesitation: “Same things I’m always excited for, for taking the story from page to stage. For taking everyone’s excitement, expressing the idea of the play, bringing it to the stage, and showing everyone what theater’s all about.”
SCDS’s production of Radium Girls takes us back about one hundred years to Orange, New Jersey, where a group of young women raise their voices and fight against the harm and injustice they have faced at the hands of the corporate world. We are introduced to the radium factory workers; young women, many of whom have quit school to bring more money to their families. Grace (Rachel Gilinski), Irene Rudolph (Baila Landa) and Kathryn Schaub (Leah Goykadosh) are three friends who sit for hours a day, painting dials on watches with radium paint. This paint has a luminous glow and the bright numbers on these watches aid soldiers in battle. It is for the war effort, they are told.
“Radium cures,” they say. Celebrity Scientist Marie Curie (played by Mikki Treitel), the Dr. Oz or Dr. Fauci of her day, tells the press that radium can remedy almost anything. Radium could be used to relieve joint pain, treat cancer, and is simply drunk as a health tonic to ensure vitality.
But then Irene mysteriously falls ill and dies. As more and more “radium girls” get sick, Grace and Katherine work to discover the cause of this strange plague. The play’s suspense rises as viewers witness the reaction of the factory heads. Factory president Arthur Roeder (Elisheva Hirsch) and former factory president Dr. Von Sochocky (Amalya Teitelbaum) discuss the plight of their employees.
We normally expect characters and themes in a story to be black and white, good or bad. The radium girls are innocent and the factory owners are evil. Right? Well, maybe not. The motives of many characters in the show are seemingly ambiguous. What is the real cause of the girls’ illnesses? Does anyone know? This intentional lack of clarity extends to other characters as well. When Grace falls ill, we expect her mother (Sara Nava Weiss) to care only about her daughter’s health, but to the audience’s dismay, she seems more concerned about receiving financial compensation from the company for her daughter’s ailment.
As the plot develops, the audience is drawn into the mystery of who is responsible for endangering the radium girls. While the plot is heavy and pulls at the heartstrings of viewers, there are also brief moments of comic relief which allow the audience to step back from the emotional intensity and give a chuckle.
I was especially taken by the acting skills of the cast members, which really drew me in to the psychological experience of their characters. In her role as Grace, actress Rachel Gilinski’s realistic facial expressions and emotions made me cry along with her and feel her pain. When the opening lights rose, actress Elisheva Hirsch transformed into Arthur Roeder. Her expressions and body language were so real and dynamic, it was hard for me to recognize this actress as the Stern College student that she is. Lastly, the vocal projection and clear articulation of Ms. Wiley (Baila Landa), drew me in and caused me to become highly invested in her character’s struggles.
I am amazed at the degree to which Russel along with every cast and crew member has invested their time to craft and perfect this play. Coming off the heels of a nearly two year hiatus due to the pandemic, SCDS presents a true masterpiece that informs its viewers of an important and transformative point in history in a thrilling and engaging way. I applaud every participant of Radium Girls and urge anyone looking for a night of high quality entertainment to go out and see the show.