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These Shining Lives revolves around the real-life circumstances of women in the 1920s who worked in a watch factory painting watch faces with glowing radium-rich paint. While the characters and company in These Shining Lives are fictitious, the story of the Radium Girls and the toxic and deadly levels of radium poisoning of over 4,000 factory workers is true. The real-life Radium Girls took their company to court and achieved a long-lasting victory over corporations with poor workplace conditions and worker's compensation that is still in effect today.
The women in These Shining Lives are delighted to find high-paying work in the early part of the century. They earn 8¢ for each watch face they paint and if they are fast enough and neat enough, they can earn over $8 a day. That kind of money could change the entire circumstances of a woman and her family in the 1920s.
Catherine, also called Katie, is leaving home for her first day of work. She has twins and a loving and supportive husband. They are barely making ends meet and she sees the opportunity to work and bring home money as a huge boon to her family.
At the factory, she meets her tablemates, Frances, Charlotte, and Pearl and learns how to paint the watches: Take the brush and twirl it between your lips to make a sharp point, dip it in the paint, and paint the numbers. “It's a lip, dip, and paint routine,” Frances instructs her. When Catherine comments on how the paint glows and tastes, she is told that radium is medicinal and cures all kinds of maladies.
She quickly becomes adept at the work and loves her new identity as a working woman. Six years later, however, she and every girl working on the watches have health problems. Many are fired for needing too many sick days. Some die. Catherine is afflicted with severe pains in her legs, arms, and jaw.
Eventually, Catherine finds a doctor willing to tell her the truth. She and all the others have toxic levels of radium poisoning. Their condition is fatal. Instead of fading into the background, Catherine and her friends decide to risk their names, images, and reputations and take the watch company to court.
Setting: Chicago and Ottowa, Illinois
Time: 1920s and 1930s
Cast Size: This play is written to accommodate 6 actors, but there are as many as 18 roles if the doubling recommended in the script is ignored.
Male Characters: 2 (who also double as 7 other minor characters)
Female Characters: 4 (who also double as 5 other minor characters)
Characters that could be played by either males or females: 4
Catherine Donohue is a proud working woman. She is vibrant and competitive. Although she insists that her job is a temporary one, she enjoys working outside of the home and she is unapologetic about it.
Frances has a keen eye for scandal. She loves the time and attention she gets from her work companions. The actress playing Frances also plays Reporter 2 and an Official.
Charlotte is a tough taskmaster and a determined woman. She works hard at her job, doesn't make friends easily and she doesn't let go of the friends she has made or let them give up. The actress playing Charlotte also plays Reporter 1.
Pearl is a shameless gossip who sees her work as an opportunity to know everything about everyone. Not a single symptom of scandal or sickness escapes her notice. The actress playing Pearl also plays the Daughter and Judge 2.
Tom Donohue is Catherine's husband. He is head-over-heels for his wife and family even though he is somewhat troubled by having a working wife. The actor playing Tom also plays Dr. Rowantree and Dr. Dalitsch.
Mr. Reed is the boss at the factory. It is clear that he has information about the effects of radium poisoning but he abides by company policy and does not inform his workers. He wants to make the factory profitable. Although he is invested in his workers and their lives and even considers them friends, he knowingly allows them to continue to be poisoned and sicken and die. The actor playing Mr. Reed also plays the Radio Announcer, the Company Doctor, the Son, Judge, and Leonard Grossman.
Content Issues: Negligible
Production rights for These Shining Lives are held by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.