The first thing you need to know about “Radium Girls,” Hood River Valley High School’s spring play, is that it’s based on a true story. And it is heartbreaking.
The Radium Girls, as they became known, contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with self-luminous paint for the U.S. Radium Corporation. When the company refused to take responsibility for the women’s condition — they began to experience anemia, bone fractures and necrosis of the jaw — five sued and eventually settled out of court, though not all of them lived to see the result.
“We are pretty excited about this new, innovative play that looks at an important part of our history,” said Director Rachel Harry, who has been teaching theater for 34 years and is a Tony award-winner.
The second thing you need to know is that it takes place over a period of time. The girls began working at the U.S. Radium Corporation in 1917, with the settlement coming in 1928.
“My theme this year is that of the empowerment of youth to take on corporations for the betterment of society,” she said.
“Newsies,” the fall musical, featured a group of newsboys who went on strike to protest unfair price hikes on the newspapers they sold. Unlike “Newsies,” which had a large cast, “Radium Girls” has 10 actors playing almost 40 roles.
“The musical had all the bells and whistles and 70 kids involved,” Harry said. “This is a smaller, simpler show.”
Simpler, maybe, but it’s fast-paced, with quick scene changes. The main pieces of the stage stay static; it’s a metaphorical set, Harry said, with the businessmen up high and the factory workers down low. This is not lost on the audience, especially during scenes involving those businessmen on their perch, discussing the women like commodities while the women, below, struggle to get straight answers about their failing health.
The cast of six sophomores and four juniors leave everything on the stage.
“The kids have worked so hard,” Harry said. “I expect them to know a lot, and I’ve had to expect an awful lot of them. But they’ve really grown.”
While it’s emotional and difficult material, it’s also encouraging. These women do not give up.
“The young adults (in this play) struggle with inner conflict; they argue with their peers and adults who doubt that anything good can come of the battle,” Harry writes in her director’s notes. “Yet they persevere and ultimately win … While this true story is heartbreaking, it is also inspiring.”
She sees similarities in both “Newsies” and “Radium Girls” with the students she teaches.
“When people find out I teach high school aged youth, they try to commiserate with me,” she writes in her director’s notes. “They believe working with teens is difficult, that ‘kids these days’ are lazy, anxiety-laden, and irresponsible. I disagree. I find the youth of today to be inspired, driven and incredibly aware of the issues facing our world. When those around me claim to have given up on positive change occurring in our world, I smile and say, ‘Have hope, I work with teens and they are going to change the world for the better, just you wait and see.’”
The play opens this weekend, Feb. 28-29, and continues March 6-7 and 13-14, all at 7 p.m. A 2 p.m. matinee is scheduled for March 8. See Tickets and Times, sidebar, for more information.