‘These Shining Lives’ is worth a Watch
1922: Catherine, Frances, Charlotte, and Pearl are the four shining faces of the factory workers at the Radium Dial Company. For eight hours a day, they paint tiny numbers on pocket watch after pocket watch, laughing and talking as they dip their brushes in radium-laced paint.
When she first joins the company, Catherine is put off by her coworkers’ habit of licking their brushes to make the ends pointy, but it soon becomes second nature to her. Melanie Marnich’s These Shining Lives is a story suffused with these small moments of dramatic irony. Domino Theatre’s production offers an earnest, if sometimes messy, rendering of the play.
These Shining Lives addresses these women’s struggles not only on the job, but as workers at home. As Catherine Donohue, Kimberly Dolan gives a soft yet strong portrayal of a young woman wrestling with the stresses of joining a new workforce while maintaining a household. In the role of Catherine’s insecure but fairly sympathetic husband Tom, I found Anton Gibson a little underwhelming. I did appreciate the frustrating nuances of the character— he’s not the world’s best spouse, he’s often dismissive, but he loves his wife, and hey, he can make a fried bologna sandwich. Gibson delivers Tom’s jokes fairly well, and he got a few good laughs from the audience on opening night.
The relationship between Catherine and Tom, while loving, highlights issues of domestic labour. Much in the way that Catherine carries the household, Dolan carries the relationship dynamic onstage. Although the moments of sensuality and romantic repartee between Catherine and Tom were a bit awkward to watch—I felt, if you’ll pardon the pun, some second-hand embarrassment—their arguments felt real. Dolan’s diction is impeccable, and her lines were always easy to understand, even when she spoke softly. I found Gibson a little harder to follow—the pacing of his speech was erratic at times, and I lost track of some of his sentences when there were other sounds happening onstage.
The scenes between the women at the factory are a highlight of Domino’s production. Nicole Benishek as Frances offers great I’m-judging-you faces, playing the group’s supposed moral backbone. Jen Buder’s portrayal of giddy, bad-joke-telling Pearl is delightful, and her journey from good to ill health is particularly stark and heartbreaking. And oh, Charlotte. “If Mae West lived in Illinois and painted watches,” quips factory supervisor Mr. Reed, “She’d be Charlotte.” Sharon Hunter brings the saucy, smack-talking Charlotte to life while showing a tired and vulnerable side between her sharp one-liners. The four women gel as a group—it seems like the actors genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
While These Shining Lives can be performed with as few as six actors, Domino Theatre’s production has a cast of twelve. This offers more opportunities for individual actors to shine—I especially liked Lloyd Balme as lawyer Mr. Grossman—but the number of people onstage felt cumbersome at times. In several scenes, multiple actors are meant to deliver the same line in unison, seemingly for emphasis. The synchronisation in those moments could use some polishing—suffice it to say it wasn’t exactly like clockwork.
Kieran Chenier is a standout member of the ensemble. He plays a worker, the company doctor, and Catherine’s son, Tommy. Chenier’s voice stands out as a tuneful anchor of the ensemble’s singing. As the dismissive doctor hired by the Radium Dial Company to cover their backs, Chenier is so convincingly patronizing that I nearly forgot the actor is in high school and not practising medicine.
The set, designed by David L. Smith, has multiple levels and includes a giant clock in the middle whose hands serve as a work table for the women in the factory. The ensemble doubles as stage hands, and scene transitions happen quickly, though not always quietly—background noise sometimes competes with dialogue.
These Shining Lives addresses the consequences of profit-driven systems that consider human life expendable. The play is an inspiring tale of women rising to fight the system and a reminder of the devastating personal, social, and financial costs of stepping out of line. Before the show, jazz recordings from the 1920s and 30s played over the PA system, setting the tone for the era. With its faraway time period, These Shining Lives offers audiences a chance to sympathize with labour struggles at a safe distance. Turning the dial back a few days, we recently observed International Women’s Day—a day which emerged from women’s labour struggles in the early 20th century and has since broadened its focus to celebrate women’s accomplishments in general. I do hope that audiences will see this play as more than a reminder of a dark past or a celebration of women’s gumption, but as a call to practice solidarity with workers who continue to face oppressive conditions today.
Domino Theatre‘s ‘These Shining Lives’ is running until March 25, 2023 and more information can be found here.