Labor rights. Corporate corruption. Female rage. These are only a few of the hot-button topics addressed in Steinhardt Educational Theatre’s new production of “Radium Girls,” currently running at the Provincetown Playhouse. Unfolding in the town of Orange, New Jersey between the years 1918 and 1928, the 2000 play by D.W. Gregory is based on the true story of young female workers poisoned by the radioactive paint they worked with.
The play opens on three young girls — Grace (Barrett Impala), Kathryn (Nora Gentile) and Irene (Lucy Medeiros) — drawing on their faces with the paint used on watch dials at the United States Radium Corporation factory to give one of their coworkers a scare. The stage transforms into a 1910s industrial factory, with towering brick walls and a large clock rimmed in glowing green looming over the stage. The set is otherwise minimalistic, relying on the rearrangement of a few tables, boxes and chairs to signify place and time.
The girls switch off the lights and the green paint on their faces immediately begins to glow in the dark, leaving the audience witness to a haunting vignette of childlike playfulness, marred by the girls’ ignorance to the fatal dangers of the paint they work with every day. Director David Montgomery is deliberate in cultivating this sense of unease — of something insidious looming just beneath the surface — through images like this.
The production moves through stark, naturalistic scenes between characters like Grace and Kathryn, or Grace and her mother (Savanah Knechel) or fiance Tom (Zack Palomo), to highly stylized moments, particularly between different members of the press.
In doing so, the production wisely plays up the media’s sensationalization of the girls’ struggles, with the two competing reporters for The New York Graphic (Kate McCreary) and The Newark Ledger (Palomo) elbowing each other out of the way as they compete for rights and offering distinctly different angles on the same story.
Grace’s struggle is a deeply personal one, affecting not only her health but all of her relationships — especially with Tom. The relationship between the two is particularly endearing, and the tenderness we get to see from Impala and Palomo makes their eventual break-up all the more heartbreaking. The media has no qualms, however, about capitalizing on Grace’s personal struggle for financial gain. A number of businesses even begin stepping forward to offer lifetime supplies of holistic remedies and the like, all in exchange for exclusive rights to the girls’ photos in their marketing materials.
Katherine Wiley (Knechel) from The Consumer’s League advises Grace to hold onto her anger but to make sure nobody else sees it. “The public doesn’t like an angry woman,” she tells her, a line which takes on a distressing resonance in the age of #MeToo. Grace must curate her image for the press, stifling her rage in favor of a demure plea for help, spitting out lines like “It hurts to smile but I have to smile. If I don’t, I’ll go crazy” in order to gain the public’s sympathy.
As she is forced to decide between accepting a settlement to pay off her mounting debts and continuing to fight uncompromisingly for justice, we see Grace, portrayed with stunning depth by first-year Impala, carving out her own sense of agency even in the face of devastating tragedy.
“Radium Girls” is a story of personal resilience and of the tragic repercussions of willed ignorance and inhumane labor practices. A moving portrayal of a shameful moment in American history, this heart-rending production shows that the issues it tackles are still relevant today. In many ways, it’s a cautionary tale.
‘‘Radium Girls” runs at the Provincetown Playhouse, 133 Macdougal St., through March 10.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 4, 2019, print edition. Email Julia Goldberg at [email protected]