Review: These Shining Lives (Three Crows Theatre)

| September 16, 2018

These Shining Lives - Three Crows Theatre 3     


These Shining Lives

Written by Melanie Marnich
at Piven Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
thru Oct 30  |  tix: pay-what-you-can  |  more info   
Check for half-price tickets   


Better script, stronger direction needed for fascinating story


These Shining Lives - Three Crows Theatre 3

Three Crows Theatre presents
These Shining Lives

Review by Lauren Emily Whalen

Three blue-aproned women sit at a table, heads down, methodically toiling. Using ritualistic, almost balletic moves, each places a thin, delicate paintbrush to her lips before dipping the now-pointed brush into a small well, then touching it to an even smaller surface. In the background, a clock loudly ticks.

These Shining Lives - Three Crows Theatre 5These are the women of Ottawa, Illinois timepiece factory in the 1920s. The substance they are repeatedly putting into their mouths? Radium. Little do these women know that this job will seal their fates.

This is the first image of These Shining Lives, Melanie Marnich’s glimpse into a forgotten piece of women’s history right here in Chicagoland. In the early 1930s, several Ottawa women brought a lawsuit against their former employer, the Radium Dial Company, for life-threatening injuries brought on by radium poisoning. The “lip, dip, point” method may have been the most efficient in painting watch and clock faces – and the women were paid by the piece, not the hour – but it proved to be deadly. Thanks to this lawsuit, Illinois factories became responsible for the working conditions of their employees.

Fascinating, right? The play sure isn’t.

Marnich’s script is interminable, feeling twice its 90-minute length. The play begins with the following clunky narration: “This is not a fairy tale, though it starts like one. This is not a tragedy, but it ends like one.” And it’s all downhill from there. Marnich’s linear storytelling has little character development and even fewer relationship dynamics, and reads like everything you’re not supposed to do in Playwriting 101. Though over a decade elapses, there’s almost no indication of the passage of time either. The women of Radium Dial Company have an incredible story, and Marnich may have done better with a nonlinear method, interspersing scenes of the subsequent trial, whose star witness is 70 pounds and barely clinging to life, with the good old days of the beginning, when the girls were making their own money, forming friendships and taking pride in their work.

With better direction, These Shining Lives could have been snappier and punchier in the beginning, slowly growing sadder and more poignant as injuries and illnesses became more pronounced and the victims’ anger grew. Instead, Kristin Davis opts for lazy and uninspired direction, so the play resembles one straight line instead of a series of peaks and valleys. Though Marnich’s dialogue isn’t the best, it could have been improved if Davis had her actors pick up their cues – at the very, very least. The cast does their best, but no relationships ring true: not the loving marriage between Catherine “Katie” Donohue (Selena Lopez, Three Crows’ Co-Artistic Director) and her husband Tom (Michael C. Hyatt), nor the camaraderie between Katie and her three coworkers, who spend most of their waking hours together doing intense, precise work.

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The actors, though talented, seem incredibly uncomfortable around one another, as though they haven’t received the guidance and rehearsal they need to come together as one. Perhaps most frustrating: Katie, the perpetually optimistic narrator of the piece, who goes from happily married teenager to wasting-away ex-employee with a bone to pick, never seems to get truly upset, even when handed a terminal diagnosis. Though even-keeled individuals show their distress in other ways, they do in fact experience distress, something Davis didn’t keep in mind when coaching her lead actor.

Two performances stand out: Melanie Vitaterna as Frances, the stern taskmaster of the group who isn’t opposed to having a good time, and Katie Ratliff as Charlotte, who has sass for days but even more loyalty. With stronger direction and a better script, the entire cast of These Shining Lives could have presented a thoughtful, illuminating story of working women exploited in the name of productivity. Instead, they’re relegated to dull dialogue, direction from someone who doesn’t appear to like the play very much, and Liv Rigdon’s blatantly inaccurate costume design. Note to Rigdon: 1920s women did not wear full pantyhose, they wore stockings and garters. Even on a shoestring budget, the latter are not hard to find.

Rating: ★★

These Shining Lives continues through October 30th at Piven Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map), with performances Thursday-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 2:30pm.  Tickets are pay-what-you-can, and are available online through their website (check for availability of half-price tickets). More info at time: 90 minutes without intermission)

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Selena Lopez (Catherine Donohue), Melanie Vitaterna (Frances O’Connell), Katie Ratliff (Charlotte Purcell), Heather VanderWielen (Pearl Payne), Michael C. Hyatt (Tom Donohue), Andrew J. Pond (Mr. Reed)

behind the scenes

Kristin Davis (director), Anna Marck (asst. director), Rebecca L. Ruge (stage manager), Nathaniel Negron (set design), Samuel Fitzwater-Butchart (sound design), Marissa Geocaris (lighting design), Kelliann Keeler (props design), Liv Rigdon (costume design, dramaturg)

radium clock company - these shining lives, three crows theatre


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Category: 2018 Reviews, Drama, Lauren Emily Whalen, Piven Theatre, Three Crows Theatre, Video

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