photo by: Mike Lantzy
Radium Girls by Phoenixville Area High School in Phoenixville, PA
November 21, 2017
Review submitted by Trinity Pike of Upper Merion Area High School
Dress, shoes, and smile all aglow. The sight seems beautiful, but light is cast to hide the darkness. While radium seemed to glimmer with promise upon discovery, the chemical was later revealed to be a lethal poison. Phoenixville’s production of Radium Girls portrayed the historical revelation, transforming a lively, carefree world into a haunting portrait.
Throughout her work, playwright D. W. Gregory juxtaposed the excitement of scientific discovery with the horror of debilitating illness. At the U.S. Radium Corporation, hundreds of female factory workers giggled and gossiped as they painted dials, dipping the brushes into their mouths to give their teeth an extra shine. But the painters contracted a mysterious disease that rotted their gums and even lead to death. Terrified by these effects, Grace Fryer struggled to sue the company, grappling with family, fame, and her unfortunate fate.
Phoenixville met the challenges of this story with maturity and sophistication. A versatile ensemble lent a dynamic atmosphere to each moment. Many cast members portrayed a wide range of emotion, conveying the panic associated with the danger of radium. Stage transitions never distracted from the sense of urgency, collaborating with lighting to seamlessly shift from one scene to the next.
Julianita Vlad (Grace Fryer) drove the show forward with her own unique energy. Beginning as a simple, obedient girl, Vlad evolved into a powerful woman, hands trembling and voice harsh as she furiously demanded that others recognize the injustice before them. Alek Wasserman (Arthur Roeder), provided a compelling performance as her employer and adversary. As persistent denial became profound guilt, Wasserman’s matter-of-fact delivery gave way to emotional vulnerability.
Alongside Wasserman was his wife, Rachael Hesse (Diane Roeder), who realized the gravity of the situation before he did. Their explosive argument was authentic and impactful, showcasing their chemistry as well as Hesse’s individual sophistication. Vlad’s friend and fellow factory worker, Xandra Coleman (Kathryn Schaub), displayed skillful characterization as she begged others to recognize her suffering, crying out with genuine sorrow. Other standouts included Brennan Becker (Dr. von Sochocky) with his convincing German accent and Kyra Bernotas (Sob Sister Reporter) with her hilarious over-the-top presence.
These performances were framed by effective technical decisions. While these aspects of the show were minimal, they were also well-executed. Led by Jesse Ercole, lighting was sometimes selective to grant certain moments a sense of intimacy, while a broad, bright stage accommodated for more activity. Stage manager Hayley Barvitskie supervised a team of crew members who set each scene quickly and quietly.
Phoenixville’s rendition of Radium Girls was excellent. Simple yet thought-provoking, the production paid a respectful homage to the factory workers who fought long ago.
Review submitted by Lionel McCulloch of PA Leadership Charter School’s Center for Performing and Fine Arts
Phoenixville Area High School’s gut wrenching, glowing production of D. W. Gregory’s Radium Girls sent shivers down spines as the characters rotted away on stage.
The play’s cold hard reality of imminent death, caused by young girls’ innocent trust countered by a corporation’s calculated corruption, documents a true story of factory watch painters during the 1920’s radium boom. The girls dab each other playfully with poison, and joke about the way their clothes shine at night. With each brush stroke, time ticks towards judgment day.
One of Gregory’s most produced plays, Radium Girls masterfully tells the tale of Grace Fryer, a young watch painter working for the Radium Corporation. She started working there as a teen, leaving school to help provide for her family and quits her job as she plans for her wedding. Exposure to the radium paint causes her and the other girls working in the factory to physically deteriorate as the play progresses. The rest of the play follows her pursuit for justice and her stagnating relationship with her fiancé.
PAHS Theater Guild cast almost fifty actors in their production. Gregory’s fast-moving play was originally created for ten. The casting choice served more students and gives the play more mass on the large stage, but reduces some of the flow during the short and choppy scenes. The stage’s size, however, facilitated quick and efficient set changes to alleviate the need for the intimacy suggested by the play’s style.
Providing a shining performance, Julianita Vlad, as Grace Fryer, was the heart of the show. Her innocence and sweetness in the beginning was equaled by her strength and fierce righteousness as she stared her static, corporate killer, Arthur Roeder (played by Alek Wasserman) in the face. Another standout performance was Rachael Hesse’s portrayal of Mrs. Diane Roeder, with her genuine fear of her husband’s actions and inactions – and what they may cause to happen in the future.
Tech was simple in this production, with a mostly barren stage, wooden furniture against black drapes, and stark lighting to focus audience attention. The lighting made the large stage a little smaller, bringing a touch of the intimacy required for such an emotional piece. Simple sets allowed for time to move quickly, which reflected the speed with which the radium killed each girl.
Time is the radioactive glowing enemy in Radium Girls. Faces shine then rot with time. Truth is revealed with time. Radium, revenge and righteousness all come in their own time. With the powerful message of women standing up for what is right Phoenixville Area High School’s Radium Girls provides a timely message to stand together and speak with one voice.