Through Sunday, Aug. 5
The Artscenter, Chapel Hill

The best historical plays excavate the why: the real reasons that events develop and unfold. By comparison, These Shining Lives contents itself instead with the who and what.

During the 1920s, some four thousand women inadvertently ingested radium on a daily basis in factory jobs painting watch dials with glow-in-the-dark paint. Though the firm’s owners and scientists knew the element was highly radioactive, and used lead shielding when they handled it, the women were never told of the danger. Instead, they were encouraged to use their lips to reform the tips of their brushes between paint applications to save time. The corporations also covered up evidence of the damage the prolonged exposure had on the women’s health and fought such revelations in court as the women died of radiation poisoning. The damning facts ultimately resulted in the creation of industrial safety regulations in the following decades.

There’s more than a touch of metaphysical poetry in Melanie Marnich’s script, as central character Catherine (a believable Lydia Nethercutt) observes, “There is a God. And he’s made of time.” Still, Marnich never proves the opening thesis that the story is “not a tragedy, though it ends like one.” And when it focuses solely on the injured women, we never meet the rest of the true protagonists in this tale: the ones who knew that radium was deadly and still kept unprotected, uninformed women painting with it for years to follow.

In a thin script, the women’s character traits are faits accompli, without development or backstory. Though Maggie Lea and Dannibeth Farnum find grounding for their characters, director Jorie Slodki gets only amateurish overacting from Nick Iammatteo and Ryan Madanick in the male roles. It’s a definite come-down from the professional-grade performances in other Women’s Theatre Festival productions this year.