So much light

Review by Sean McQuaid

Radium Girls

Radium Girls
UPEI Performing Arts Centre
March 14, 2024

“So much light.” Spoken by a doomed Grace Fryer about her factory workplace, that’s the first line of Radium Girls, U.S. playwright D.W. Gregory’s popular historical drama about the workers, mostly young women, exposed to dangerous radiation while hand-painting glow-in-the-dark watches and other products for the United States Radium Corporation. 

First produced in 2000 and frequently remounted since, Gregory’s darkly comic, melancholy true story is the first show staged in the new UPEI Performing Arts Centre by the UPEI theatre program’s company, Vagabond Productions. 

Light is a selling point of the new venue, a 400-seat, amphitheatre-style hall with professional light and sound equipment. Armed with these new toys, director/producer/designer Greg Doran occasionally suspends the play’s characters in a sickly green glow that feels right for a tale of radioactive science gone wrong, even one resulting in neither a Hulk nor a She-Hulk. 

As a practicing attorney, fictional radioactive do-gooder She-Hulk might have come in doubly handy here. When the real-life “radium girls” fell gravely ill, they had to go to court to fight for compensation since their employers tried to dodge responsibility for their grisly fates. Set primarily in 1920s New Jersey, Gregory’s script follows both workers and management as U.S. Radium’s dark side gradually comes to light. 

The play features over 30 characters but is designed for a cast of nine or ten actors, most playing multiple roles. Only two parts are big enough that their portrayers have single roles: Grace Fryer (played here by Jalyn Chapman) and U.S. Radium president Arthur Roeder (Adi Vella). The other parts in Vagabond’s version are filled by Mohamed Ateeq, Grace Biswas, Kyra Brewster, Reese Carmody, Madalyn Clempson, Marius Lavoie and Brennan McDuffee. 

A capable Vella is smart and sympathetic albeit somewhat muted as conflicted executive Roeder, but Chapman shows greater range and energy as Grace: genuine, likeable, funny, and as fiery or forlorn as the story’s assorted twists demand; no character in this production feels more fully alive than Chapman’s Grace, deepening the play’s already pervasive sense of tragedy. 

Brewster and Clempson offer sturdy support as Grace’s friends and fellow painters Kathryn and Irene. The Brewster-Clempson-Chapman trio have solid chemistry, the oft-animated Brewster has good comic instincts, and Clempson is also earnestly effective as social activist Katherine Wiley. 

The entire cast has standout moments—McDuffee is believable and moving as Grace’s fiancé Tom Kreider, Biswas is a palpably disillusioned Mrs. Roeder, Carmody is shameless as a sensational “Sob Sister” reporter and Lavoie makes the most of his part as opportunistic U.S. Radium executive Charlie Lee—but the most versatile and vividly memorable of the bunch is Ateeq, especially as attorney Edward Markley and U.S. Radium founder Dr. Von Sochocky. Ateeq’s often big, broad choices have a slight whiff of ham by times, balanced precariously between compelling and cartoonish; but his five characters all feel sharply distinct from each other, his natural flair for villainy fits the oleaginous Markley like a glove, and he brings affecting, understated humanity to the ultimate downfall of the once-pompous Von Sochocky. 

The cast’s pacing feels rushed in spots, especially scenes featuring fast-talking reporters (Carmody and McDuffee)—their rat-a-tat recitation in the manner of old-time news announcers is a valid stylistic choice but needs fractionally slower delivery or crisper articulation than it gets here; and Carmody’s roles as factory supervisor Mrs. MacNeil and Grace’s mother Mrs. Fryer feel like interchangeably one-note scolds by times. 

The staging is simple—just one minimalist set with an oversize luminous clock face looming over everything, and the cast spends the whole show on stage, taking turns performing. In idle moments the actors sometimes feel conspicuously detached from the proceedings, like random bystanders waiting for a bus that never comes; but Doran’s cast is focused most of the time, and Vagabond’s able production helps illuminate a dark time in American history.