Glow-in-the-dark watch dials provided a path for pilots flying in the skies over the Western Front during World War I and helped them win the war.
The paint that workers applied to the dials contained radium, which people then viewed as a miracle drug that killed cancer, but it is also poisonous a fact that took a long time for companies to admit.
The women in the factories suddenly and mysteriously started getting sick, and only later did they realize what had happened to them.
One of the workers decided to take on the corporate world to admit responsibility.
A book entitled “Radium Girls: The Dark Story of Americas Shining Women” tells their story. D.W. Gregory later adapted it into a play, the next production of Rockville Little Theatre.
“It’s in somewhat-fictionalized form, but all the characters in the play area real, although the playwright does take liberties with their personalities,” said Tristan Poje, who is directing. “Gregory also includes some of the actual dialogue.”
The play zeroes in on one factory, when in reality there were two in the United States, one in Illinois and one in New Jersey.
After doing TV and film work for years, Poje appeared in RLT’s production of “Our Town,” where he is making his directorial debut.
“‘Radium Girls’ was on a list of pre-approved plays at the theater, but I had never heard of it before,” Poje said. “Then I realized how relevant it is.”
That relevance lies in scandals and cover-ups, which, the saying goes, are always worse.
Poje is overseeing a cast of 12, most of who play three or four different roles.
“The challenge is for them to do the roles as distinct but not caricatures,” he said.
Another challenge is the physical transformation the actors playing the factory workers must undergo, from healthy young girls to sick ones.
The story is a powerful and very sad one but also one of redemptive justice, according to Marnie Kanarek, who plays Grace Fryer, the woman who stands up to the company on behalf of all the young women.
“She doesn’t start out a leader at all,” said Kanarek. “She’s a quiet, timid young woman and people pleaser. The bubbly, charismatic one is Katherine, but she gets too sick to appear and the trial and dies before Grace, so Grace is thrust into it.”
She becomes less a people pleaser and more someone concerned with a sense of justice, the actor added. Kanarek was happy to be “thrust” into the role of Grace.
“I like dramas, and have been drawn to historical stories,” she said. But, Kanarek admitted, it’s not easy playing a historical figure.
“It’s an amazing experience to bring someone historical to life, but it’s also hard to do justice to what has already happened,” she said.
The play, to her mind, is also about women taking charge of their lives. “Eventually, they had power, but at a price,” she said.
In Grace’s case, she battles not only Arthur Roeder, her former employer, but her family and friends, who questioned the price she’d pay for telling the truth. Her fight also costs her a personal relationship.
Her opponent, Roeder, is not a malicious man but one who is “scared and desperate, wanting to save his own skin,” said Kanarek.
Although the script describes “Radium Girls” as a comedic drama, Poje demurs.
“I think that’s more because of the pace of the show, the fact that the scene structure is very cinematic, with rapid transitions,” he said. There are humorous parts, but it’s all very tragic. The women were in a virtual death vigil.”
“Radium Girls” runs April 27-May 6. Rockville Little Theatre productions take place at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. For tickets, call 240-314-8690. For information about RLT, visit http://rlt-online.org.