There is a big ribbon-like structure that arches above the set of UCSB’s production of These Shining Lives. It glows with dim lights like stars and is randomly painted with the clock hours, interspersed with ghostly amorphous shapes. As I took my seat, I thought of another curving — if grim —reference to time, from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116,” “Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle’s compass come.” But it was only later that I realized how apt the comparison really was. It is not merely that time figures as the grim reaper — hardly a startling development for a story about women fatally poisoned by radiation. Rather, it’s all about the first phrase, “Love’s not time’s fool.” This powerful and deeply touching drama is all about what shines in spite of time’s theft.
This is a production to make a playwright proud. The foundation here is four female leads, who turn in solid performances, refined characterizations, and convincing relationships. At the center is the true story of Catherine (“Katie”) Donahue (Madelyn Robinson) of Ottawa, Illinois, who takes relatively high-paying employment in 1925 at the Radium Dial Company, one of a thousand young women painting glow-in-the-dark watch faces with deadly radium. Of course, the women are not told the radium is harmful. The whole play is all about the darkness of denial at multiple levels: denial of information, denial of rights, denial of social mobility. Katie is a sunshine, middle American, girl next door, who typifies an emergent mainstream feminist trend to work outside the home. “A girl walks different when she makes money.” Frances (Erin Margaret Pettigrew), Charlotte (Nicole Caitlin Abramson), and Pearl (Sophie Hassett) are Katie’s coworkers at the plant. They work, gossip, enjoy an occasional afternoon at the beach, and grow together like sisters over a decade. They also suffer, falter, lose their jobs, and file a lawsuit that eventually finds its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A 1920s atmosphere is evoked through vintage print dresses and hairstyles, and old-time music interludes. There are cutaway radio spots touting the purported medicinal values of radium and the virtues of Westclox “day and night” timepieces — “a million customers can’t be wrong.” Julian Remulla and Ian Watson provide fine supporting roles as Tom Dohahue and Mr. Reed. But this show is really about the women, and the acting laurels go to them. One outstanding example is the slow-burning rivalry between the puckish Katie and the brassy-but-guarded Charlotte, who won’t allow her in close. A single stunning encounter finally explodes late in the play when the tables are turned, and Katie’s usual optimism suddenly becomes evasion while Charlotte’s rage is the ice ax that shatters her own defenses. Robinson and Abramson sizzled.
A play like this might shrill from a social-justice soapbox, or become self-indulgently pitiable; These Shining Lives does neither. Instead, playwright Melanie Marnich seems to tear a page from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and mix small-town nostalgia with spiritual transcendence. Both plays use the device of an omniscient narrator who comprehends the light and the dark and yet projects an attitude of detachment and good faith. The unflappable Katie greets the audience at the very start, introducing what is “neither a fairy tale nor a tragedy” and knowing full well all the details, including her own death. And as the health of the four women worsens, we are told of their symptoms, but we witness no bandages, limping, or clenched jaws. They appear whole and intact — as if the strength, dignity, and love released through their trials are what finally shine through Katie’s memory.