I love fantasy worlds, fairy tales and impossible things coming to life in the media I consume. I’m a fan of exploring worlds unlike our own, where magical things can take place in the fiction of a show, play or book. But I also love true stories—especially those that bring into focus the past of a place I was already familiar with. These Shining Lives, staged by Three Crows Theatre and currently near the end of its run at the Piven Theater in Evanston, tells the tale of the “Radium Girls” of Ottawa, Illinois, who thought they’d gotten the chance of a lifetime when they were offered jobs at the Radium Dial Company painting watch faces with luminescent radium powder. They didn’t realize (and later, were not told) that the radium was a poison that would literally cripple and kill them. Not only is this a true story, it’s a pivotal moment in worker protection legislation, and features a cast of real-life characters who wouldn’t stop fighting until they got justice. The premise of These Shining Lives was more than enough to draw me in to want to see the play. Unfortunately, an unchecked bent towards melodrama in Melanie Marnich’s original script as well as a proclivity for the same on the part of some of the cast took this inherently dramatic tale into somewhat unenjoyable territory.
Much of the reason for this, I’ve discovered, lies in Marnich’s script, which opens with a tell-don’t-show sort of monologue in which we’re told by the main character and narrator of the play, Catherine Donohue (Selena Lopez), “This isn’t a fairy tale, though it starts like one. It’s not a tragedy, though it ends like one. It’s something else. We’re something else…” and so on for at least another few minutes. While I can appreciate an epic monologue a la Hamlet, in this case, it serves to lay all the story’s cards on the table right out front, and to sort of juice a story with great action and drama for all it’s worth in the first five minutes. Even this would be forgivable if it wasn’t a trend that continued throughout the play, with characters frequently shouting out their emotions rather than displaying them. This frequently happens just as the action is intensifying. When Catherine finds out she’s terminally ill and goes home to face her family, she exclaims “This is the sound of a mother’s heart breaking” before a rather histrionic fit where she breaks all the house’s clocks. Further on down the road, she’ll exclaim “This is me dying, isn’t it? This is me dying. This is me. This. Is. it.”
It’s not just in these poorly written lines that we lose the story’s shine. Marnich, though mentioning that the women are not simple or one thing in her script notes, in fact presents each character in a sort of one-note manner. There’s Charlotte (Katie Ratcliff)—the Mae West feisty girl, Pearl (Heather VanderWielen)–the funny one, Frances (Melanie Vitaterna)–the “moral backbone” and so on. These descriptions, offered by the “company man” Mr. Reed, played excellently by Andrew Pond, at first seem designed as Catherine’s casual introduction to the women she’ll be working with. Instead, as the play progresses, those tags predict how each one will act or react to any given scenario. Pearl will tell a joke, Charlotte will make a snide remark and Frances will chastise her for it.
The problems don’t lie entirely in the script though, as sometimes the performances exacerbated the existing problems. Selena Lopez’s portrayal of Donohue helps round out what could have been a one-dimensional character, but at times, still leans into the scene-chewing dialogue put forth by Marnich. Similarly, Michael Hyatt’s performance as Catherine Donohue’s husband Tom, was overall charming and enjoyable—he’s one of the few characters Marnich has given some dimension, at first seeming to be “the perfect husband” but later showing cracks and flaws. At times though, he was inconsistent, and most unfortunately, he and Lopez’s chemistry never seemed particularly convincing, despite their epic love story being a pivotal part of the emotion in the play.
The real problem of These Shining Lives lies in unrealized potential. There’s so much to dig into in this story, but we seem to float at the surface. With more research and more care, this play could reach a whole new level and be much more effective. As it was at Three Crows, the emotional impact was essentially erased by a lack of subtlety in storytelling that could have truly made this something special, and though at times the team managed to give it some nuance and dimension, it ultimately still gets lost in its own trappings.
These Shining Lives runs until September 30 at the Piven Theater, 927 Noyes St. in Evanston. Tickets can be purchased here.
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