Radium Girl – a Hero

I was in the middle of writing my new post for this blog with the intention to dedicate it to Marie Sklodowska Curie, the brilliant scientist and recipient of two Nobel prizes. She was an inspiration and role model for me while I was studying biochemistry in Warsaw — the city of her birth and mine (two generations apart). I thought March would be the perfect month for such a salute since it is dedicated to the celebration of women.

When I learned that the play Radium Girls, written by D.W. Gregory and based on a true story, is being presented by Beowulf Alley Theatre here in Tucson, I knew that I had to see it! After all, radium was discovered and isolated by Marie Curie, my hero. So on a sunny Sunday afternoon at 2:30 pm — when I would rather be gardening — I was sitting in the dark auditorium of the theater watching Radium Girls.

The play was emotionally exhausting for me and the Radium Girls stayed in my mind with such a persistence that I postponed writing about Marie Curie and wrote this instead.

You might be familiar with the tragic story of the young women (18-year-old on average) working in the factory owned by the U.S. Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey, where “glowing” watches were produced. The Radium Girls, as they are now referred to, were painting the dials of watches with delicate brushes using paint containing radioactive radium. The girls were unaware of the deadly power of the paint. The factory management was unaware, as well…at first! When the danger became apparent, fear of the responsibility for the workers, fear of bad publicity, and fear of the financial consequences were too big for the corporation to face. As a result, the dangers of using radium were downplayed and the need to protect the workers totally neglected. Consequently the girls continued to paint the dials of the watches. In order to sharpen the brush points they continued putting them in their mouths and twirling them against their lips, each time swallowing a bit of the radioactive paint…. With today’s knowledge of radiation it is easy to predict the end of the story.

Since I did not grow up in this country, I was not even aware of the Radium Girls’ existence… till now. Sheldon Metz, the director of the play, did! He read about them in a Chicago newspaper when he was a 15-year-old boy. The story made a lasting impression on him and that is why there is an opportunity to see this play in Tucson. For that I am very grateful to him and the entire cast.

The play takes us to Orange, New Jersey and requires setting our watches back to 1926 in order to enter the scenes full of authentic characters of that time.

The focus of the play is Grace Fryer, one of the watch painters at the Orange factory, who slowly becomes aware of the danger of the painting job by seeing some of her friends getting deadly sick. In spite of quitting her job and finding a safer one (in a bank), she becomes very sick and faces the prognosis of only one year left to live. Her decision to fight the U.S. Radium Corporation and her painful struggle with that decision are remarkable — and worth seeing in the performance by Nicole M. Scott.

I was glad that the character of Arthur Roeder, president of the corporation, was not overdrawn and made into a caricature. Jared Stokes convincingly personifies Roeder in a way that it is not possible to like him, but also not easy to hate him.

Every member of the cast, except Nicole, plays several characters and that was pretty amazing for me. They all deserve a standing ovation, but it is the Grace Fryer character that stole my heart. The Radium Girl, Grace Fryer, became one of my heroes.

Grace’s type of heroism is often unrecognized because it is not action oriented or driven by an overpowering personality. It is not like the act of heroism by a soldier, rescue team member, fire fighter, or ordinary bystander responding to a dangerous situation requiring a quick, decisive action. No! She is a different type of hero; she becomes a hero through a painful metamorphosis. And metamorphosis requires time.

Grace, in the play (and in her real life), is not a complicated person at first. She has her relatively common dreams — dreams of marriage, having a home, children, and simply a good life. She is a nice girl, as she describes herself, one who was taught to obey, to behave well, to please others and to not become angry…

This very young girl is changing slowly in front of us into an aware, decisive, and strong young woman. That does not happen by some magic, serendipity, or blind faith in a supreme being’s help. Such a metamorphosis comes with the pain of shedding different skins of fears and doubts. And Grace had plenty of them while struggling with the overwhelming power of the U.S. Radium Corporation and, in addition, with her mother and friends who fear that her battle for justice is useless and will backfire. Of course she desires some physical comfort and a bit of financial security while facing the prospect of imminent death. Such comfort is tempting and is offered to her a couple of times… for the price of being silent. She has to re-examine her decision each time she is tempted.

Grace does find the strength to stand for what she believes “is the right thing to do” in spite of all the forces going against her, in spite of her loneliness, in spite of her despair. That is why she is a hero for me.

I truly wish more people could see this play and especially the young ones — high school and college students. The Radium Girls were their age, after all. Grace Fryer’s fight with the U.S. Radium Corporation influenced greatly how workers’ safety and rights have changed. The Radium Girls play presents a lot of opportunities for intellectual debate about the future of this country. As Sheldon Metz states in his Notes in the program,

“There are, to this day, other corporations promoting products that may or may not be safe: cosmetics, medications, dietary and pet products, food, paints, nuclear waste etc. The story happened over 90 years ago. It is still happening. You make up your own minds.”

You can still make up your mind to see the play — that is, of course, if you live in the Tucson area. However, there are only a few performances left:

7:30pm Fridays and Saturdays through April 7
2:30pm Sundays, April 1 & 8
Beowulf Alley Theatre
11 South 6th Avenue
Downtown Tucson

Links to reviews:

Faith in Science | Review | Tucson Weekly
Radium Girls – Downtown Tucson Partnership
“Radium Girls” recounts early battle for worker safety
“Radium Girls” A Disturbing Legacy

* * *

Text copyright © 2012 by Alicja Mann.

Explore posts in the same categories: Essays, Events, Feelings, Opinions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

4 Comments on “Radium Girl – a Hero”

  1. Jared Stokes Says:

    Thank you for the kind words, and for making the time to see our show. We volunteer to do this because many of us believe there are so many worthwhile stories to tell.

  2. David Says:

    Thank you for coming to see the show. I too feel it is important to let people know wha
    t happened, and sadly still happens.

  3. Robert Casler Says:

    I grew up in West Orange and, although I heard about this, I never knew it took place in the town next to ours.

  4. Christina B Farnsworth Says:

    Either Nova or Frontline did a special on the topic. And I think there has been a similar situation in Tucson with workers contaminated with barium, I think, but can not remember details.

    It is so sad that big industry attempts to get away with things like radium paint, nuclear contamination, dioxin and other poisons — I fear fracking will be the next big scandal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: