IndyFringe: Radium Girls

This is part of IndyFringe 2021, Aug. 19-Sept. 5 (individual performance times vary) in downtown Indianapolis. Details and tickets at IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

In the 1920s, there was huge demand for items with glow-in-the-dark numbers and letters from paint that contained radium, recently discovered and believed by many to be perfectly harmless — maybe even beneficial, as it was used to treat cancer. This meant plenty of high-paying jobs for young women suited to the delicate work of applying the paint. To get a precise point, they were told to put the brush tip to their lips.

But eventually, mysteriously, their jaws began to hurt…

Christian Youth Theater presents “Radium Girls,” based on the true story of these women’s battle with the U.S. Radium Corporation to get it to admit to the dangers of the deadly substance they worked with, and to set things right. Many wouldn’t live to see justice. 

As we meet these “girls,” they talk of a coworker who had passed away. The obfuscation by the company is already in effect, with a rumor the deceased had syphilis, and having their own illnesses attributed to exposure to phosphorus in matches, or from bad nutrition. One of the women, Grace Fryer, leaves the company with plans to start a family, but her persistent illnesses are only getting worse. Fortunately, she finds help in arguing her case, presented both before a judge and, more importantly, the court of public opinion. 

Seeing this portrayed by a cast of talented teenagers brings to mind how young the actual victims were — not much older than the actors — as through effective makeup we see their fresh faces go sallow as their characters’ bodies fall apart. The script by D.W. Gregory pulls no punches: we see the lengths the company goes to put off its reckoning; the temptations of the women, dying and deep in debt, to take a small settlement; and the reactions of strangers that range from authentic sympathy to cold exploitation.

I don’t have a cast list, so I’ll just applaud an excellent ensemble, members of which we will likely see more of in seasons to come. But the important people are the ones they represent, real people in an American scandal and tragedy we should never forget. Performances are in the Basle auditorium at the Athenaeum. 

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