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. 

IndyFringe: Schoolhouse Rock LIVE, Fringe Edition

This show is part of the 15th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 15-25, 2019 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

Though this is at Fringe, note this is not a parody or deconstruction or any avant garde thing. This is the stage show based on — and performing — the various educational commercial-length shorts you (or your parents) likely grew up with back in the days of Saturday morning cartoons.

This production is by the energetic and highly-talented teens of CYT Indy (the local chapter of Christian Youth Theater). In the stage show, a young teacher is having trouble sleeping because she is worried about her first day at school. So the denizens of School House Rock come to her in a dream, to show how “learning is power” and that it lies within her, too.

This being a Fringe-length show, there are only several select numbers the kids get to do, but they do them well. And we even get a reference to the Pluto controversy when Interplanet Janet comes flying around.  

Support future artists, enjoy the memories, and maybe learn something. Remaining performances are 6 p.m. Friday and 1:30 p.m. Saturday at The Oasis (Shriners’ entrance of the Murat, on the north side), 502 N. New Jersey St.

 

Classroom drama gets excellent portrayal by student actors

By John Lyle Belden

ATTENTION: Your assignment is to see and applaud some very talented youth.

CYT director Laura Baltz told us that her all-kid cast of “Up the Down Staircase,” playing this weekend at Theater at the Fort, were unsure about how us grownups would judge their efforts, especially as it’s a first-time foray into drama rather than comic musicals. But, simply put, John & Wendy were blown away.

The play – based on the 1960s novel – takes place in an inner-city New York high school where a young first-time teacher is confronted by a run-down building, bureaucratically stifled staff and apathetic students. Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the film or a stage version (or “To Sir With Love” or frankly any inspiring-teacher film), you know the story. But it’s how the teacher gets through the red tape and reaches the kids that’s important, and it doesn’t seem so cliché when the students are actually played by school-age kids (middle-schoolers in high school are easier to accept than Hollywood’s 20-something screen “teens”).

The adult roles are played by elder members of the CYT troupe, and come off as believably mature. I thought I could guess which actors are 18, but Baltz informed me that actually, none of them are.

Abagail Johnson is appropriately inspiring as new teacher Sylvia Barrett. She seems comfortable in her own skin with an optimistic confidence that shines through her character, even when overwhelmed, making you believe in and root for the “Teach” at the center of the story. Sabrina Duprey convincingly plays at least a decade older than her 16 years as Beatrice, Sylvia’s fellow teacher and mentor.

Sam Surrette couples his excellent performance with a cocky swagger as teacher and frustrated author Paul Barringer, who feels he’s too good for the job he’s stuck in until his efforts to stay emotionally distant from his students backfire almost tragically.

Maria Saam ably plays Ellen, a friend who provides outside perspective for Sylvia (and the audience) through their correspondence.

And Joshua Minnich manages the difficult job of injecting humanity into administrative assistant J.J. McHabe, the personification of much of what Sylvia is up against.

The rest of the cast do very well as faculty and students – keeping events flowing and lines delivered sharply (even when the scene calls for them to talk over one another). Jackson Bell and Makayla Cripe handle the dramatic load of portraying students who are troubled, each in a distinctly different way.

As the original story was told in letters, memos and written notes, the play cleverly provides them as loose conversations or popping in through hidden doors in the wall (like the old TV show “Laugh-In”). Ellen’s home, miles away, enters and exits the stage edge by clever lighting. All elements are executed smoothly.

I should note that CYT stands for Christian Youth Theater. It is easy to assume that such a group might feel compelled to insert Bible verses or otherwise “Jesus-up” the show, but there’s no preaching here. The play carries a theme of Christian compassion that speaks for itself.

And the teachers’ plight might look a little too familiar, even 50 years after the story was written.

As for the concerns mentioned earlier, these young thespians needn’t worry. They are doing solid work in an American classic. My advice to them is to keep working on the stage as long as you feel inspired to, and take the play’s notion of reach-exceeding-grasp to heart. It might not always work (still, you did your best, right?) but this time it definitely did.

Just one weekend of performances (weather permitting) Friday through Sunday, Jan. 13-15 at 8920 Otis Ave. on the former Fort Benjamin Harrison grounds, just off the north end of Post Road. Info at www.cytindy.org.