‘Radium Girls’ opens today
LAKE PLACID — A century ago, a group of factory workers known as the “Radium Girls” sued the U.S. Radium Corporation after they contracted radiation poisoning from their jobs painting watch dials with radium-infused paint. Tonight, a group of Lake Placid high schoolers will tell their story onstage.
“The Radium Girls,” a 2000 play by D.W. Gregory, follows Grace Fryer throughout the 1920s as she grows weaker from radiation poisoning. At the time, radium was treated as a cure-all and a useful tool — it was used to help devices like watches and compasses glow in the dark, and it also was added to household items like toothpaste for its purported health benefits.
“It was the Gatorade of the time, except it killed them,” said Brenden Gotham, director and Lake Placid Middle/High School English and social studies teacher. “Grace Fryer was an actual person who lived and died from radium poisoning, and the U.S. Radium Corporation was a real corporation that knowingly had the girls paint with paint that was killing them. And then, even if they were a little unsure on that, they definitely knew that it was the reason they died. And so, when they tried to fight in court, the company tried to delay, delay, delay but ultimately Grace Fryer won.”
In the high school’s production, Fryer is played by 10th-grader Sophie Spanburgh.
“In the beginning, I was iffy. I didn’t really understand (the play),” Spanburgh said. “But, after getting the script and reading it and understanding everything, I really liked it.”
Though the subject matter of the play is heavy at times — it deals with workplace injury, corporate greed and workers’ rights — it is one of the most popular plays staged in American high schools due to its small cast requirements. Districts also use the play as an opportunity to study the early 20th century through a new lens.
“Certainly, it’s hard to take sometimes and the subject matter is difficult but it’s a powerful message and needs to be told,” Gotham said. “I love theater — it’s so important. You learn. Every play we do, we learn.”
Lake Placid students learned about the history of radium and the nation’s economy in the lead-up to the Great Depression to prepare for their roles. They also had the opportunity to speak to Gregory, the playwright, after one of Gotham’s friends put him in touch with her.
“We got to talk to her over Zoom and ask her questions,” said Spanburgh. “I was too scared to say anything, honestly, but she was really nice and it really showed us some things that we didn’t know about the play and really changed some of the things we did, specifically for a reader.”
Senior Jesse Marshall, who is acting for the first time in his life, said that the conversation with Gregory helped him to understand the inner workings of the play better.
“I learned that my character did not actually exist,” he said. “He existed, but his name wasn’t Tom. It was Woody. Very disappointing. But it was very interesting to actually hear from a very famous playwright, and I’ve learned an exponential amount about theater from all sides.”
One of the unique features of the play is that most roles are meant to be played by the same actors — a strategy known as “double-casting.” Marshall, for example, plays both Fryer’s boyfriend and her lawyer. Spanburgh is one of two students whose roles are explicitly not double-cast — most other cast members play at least two characters throughout the show.
“Some of the roles are double-casted on purpose,” she said. “It’s not that we didn’t have enough kids, it’s that the playwright … did it on purpose. I think that some of the combinations really show opposite sides, like Jesse, he’s a mailman and then he’s a lawyer. So all of the doubles are really complex.”
The rehearsal process for the show was about one month — shorter than some of the actors were used to. Gotham said that this was due to how involved Lake Placid high schoolers are. Many of the cast members juggle multiple extracurriculars on top of schoolwork.
“We’re so small here, it’s really wonderful that we’re able to put on a serious fall play in the fall and have a musical in the spring,” he said. “Some kids like to do musicals and other kids just like to do straight plays and other kids are in both. I’m really thankful to our district for supporting the fall play for years.”
Spanburgh and Marshall both have all of their lines memorized and feel confident heading into show week, though they are not immune from nerves.
“I’m shivering in my timbers about it, but I think it’ll be fine,” Spanburgh said. “We’ve put so much work into it, and it’s amazing seeing, like, Jesse. He was one of the first people off-book and I was like, ‘How many shows have you done?’ and he goes, ‘This is my first!'”
“Nervous preparation,” Marshall said.
“The Radium Girls” will be performed in the Lake Placid Middle/High School auditorium on Nov. 2, Nov. 3 and Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for students and seniors.