Ross Valley Players emotionally tackle women’s abuse, empowerment
The women’s empowerment movement has come to Marin with throttle wide open — at the Barn, theatrical home of the Ross Valley Players.
Via “These Shining Lives,” a drama that retells a true tale dating back almost a century (only 10 years after the exalted men of Congress’ capitulated and voted to allow women to vote.
It’s a play by Melanie Marnich that’s thought-provoking despite being a bit heavy-handed and predictable.
The opening narrative line projects a great deal: “This isn’t a fairy tale though it starts like one; it’s not a tragedy though it ends like one.”
“These Shining Lives,” an emotional 90-minute play directed by Mary Ann Rodgers, is based on a legal battle that ended up setting a precedent for factory safety standards and leading to the establishment of a consumer-advocacy agency, OSHA, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The Radium Dial Company of Ottawa, Illinois, employed young women for up to $8 a month, an amount that could pull an entire family above the poverty line in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
But they’d have to paint watch dials with what turned out to be fatal, glow-in-the-dark, radioactive material.
The play centers around four factory workers (with some characters being composites), each of whom is initially thrilled with her newfound estrogen camaraderie and freedom in spite of being slowly poisoned because they individually lick their radium-laden paintbrushes to a point well over 150 times daily — some 4,000 times a day collectively, more than a million times annually.
Despite growing alarmingly ill, the women persevere. Why?
Because “a girl walks differently when she’s making money,” notes a playwright Melanie Marnich character.
The company — focused on profits, not well-being — raises no red flags and, in fact, rushes to fire those who miss work due to sickness, all the while denying that anything’s wrong (even when workers’ horrific symptoms are detailed).
This line identifies well the overriding attitude: Definition of a company doctor — a doctor who takes care of the company.”
Although the occasionally fitful play also focuses on a loving relationship with a usually supportive husband, most male characters patronize the women, ignoring their failing vitality.
Even though I’m not female and never worked an assembly line, my late dad prepared me to empathize with the abuse in “These Shining Lives.” He was a union organizer in New York City who forever fought to end low pay, sweatshop-like conditions and a dearth of health bennies in the U.S. postal service.
Here, the main character, Catherine Donohue (played passionately by Jessica Dahlgren) acts as narrator and breaks the fourth wall — as do her buddies in their well-defined portrayals as Charlotte (Sarah Williams), who makes snarkiness an art form; Frances (Jazmine Pierce), an employee permeated with faith; and Pearl, a jokester (Carly Van Liere).
Its empowerment theme may echo current headlines about the latest corporate abuse of worker-bees (female andmale), but I found the play’s evolution a bit troubling (possibly because I’m a male who’s never felt the pangs of being treated like a subservient, second-class gender target like women so often do).
Still, though I experienced the first act as somewhat artificial and stilted, I wisely decided to reserve judgment until play’s end. I was glad I did, because the impact of the post-intermission half — with its emphasis on the maladies, the company’s insensitivity and the ensuing court case — hit me like a heavyweight boxer’s punch to the solar plexus.
So I wept.
And suddenly became aware of copious sniffling throughout the jam-packed audience on opening night, which coincidentally but appropriately occurred on International Women’s Day, this year carrying a hashtag of #BalanceforBetter and aiming at gender equality, a greater awareness of discrimination and a celebration of women’s achievements.
During the break, I engaged in a mild debate with Maureen O’Donoghue, co-executive producer and production manager of the show. While I voiced reservations, she extolled the play and forcefully professed that one major value was it exposing a fissure in our society:
“Women are used to notbeing heard.”
I must concur, unfortunately, with that statement — and, although I believe I listen more than most men (especially those of the macho persuasion),I hereby pledge to listen even better in the future.
“These Shining Lives” will run at the Barn, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross, through March 31. Night performances, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $12-$27. Information: (415) 456-9555 or www.rossvalleyplayers.com.