Miami’s “These Shining Lives” Glows

Review by Liz Eichler

Audiences may be surprised by a number of things in These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich, playing now through October 2 at Miami University Theatre.  For the college students, it may be the language of the late 1920’s and 30’s and the slang sprinkled throughout the show, or clothing, helping place it in history.  It could be surprising to hear the characters discuss women’s rights issues as they are forging the way for women in the workplace.  You could be surprised by the treatment of workers’ rights before federal protections. You may also join me in cheering for young performers in authentic embraces. Miami’s decision to focus on intimacy elevates this production beyond most academic theatre. 

Modern theatre makers’ consideration of intimacy–from fully clothed kisses and embraces or far more togetherness–is a welcome advancement. Carving time into the rehearsal schedule for discussion and guidance provides performers with the infrastructure to be more open and authentic, to ensure consent, and create boundaries performers can freely explore. Luckily, Miami’s production is directed by one of the specialists in this new area, Torie Wiggins. From the tender embraces of the husband and wife on the stage, to the hugs of friends, the authenticity allows the audience to empathize with the joy, versus awkward artifice. 

These Shining Lives glows in honesty and heart. The story is sad but true. The Radium Dial Factory was based in Illinois in the 1920s.  They trained young women to paint the numbers on watches and clocks with pure radium which allowed the dials to be seen at night, but it is also a carcinogenic substance.  These ladies were instructed to use their tongue and lips to help form the bristles of their paintbrush to get a more accurate point for these dials. They were paid eight cents a dial–but they paid with their life. When workers started exhibiting signs of radium poisoning management sent them placating letters assuring them it was safe.  As they got sicker they were fired. 

This play focuses on Catherine Donahue (Tammy Sanow), her husband Tom (Drew Grant) and her coworkers as they all navigate the benefits and ill effects of working at this company.  For Kate and her coworkers, they formed a sisterhood, a lifelong bond–and then they started losing those lives.  They stuck together and decided to bring a lawsuit against the company–to fight for seven years to expose the practices and foreknowledge.  

Kate and her husband live an ideal life–they are enamored with each other and the audience feels it. Their chemistry is charming; both are solid performers. The co-workers are so comfortable with each other, you want to go to the beach with them. Each is unique and special–perky Pearl (Becca Borton), tough at first Charlotte( Abby Sokol–who has a great voice), and loving Frances (Madeline Collins). “We just did our jobs” they said, trusting the company would look out for them, and eventually distrusting the safety assurances made by the management. The Company Manager (Tod Fish) “made a deal with the devil,” the girls say, as he looks out for his job, not their safety. Most of the performers play additional roles but Fish brings us five, including impressive turns at the Company Doctor, Lawyer Leonard Grossman.

Production elements are strong, and Miami’s faculty designers advised some stellar students. Costumes by Lisa Martin-Stuart are appropriately historical in a tight color palette: mauve, tan, cream, maroon and evergreen. Scenery by Lauren Lewis includes levels with large dials, work benches and faculty windows, and a kitchen table to evoke the locations.

Jenna Wrona’s gift for lighting is strong. The light pouring in from the factory windows is so realistic in brightness and color I wondered if it was still light outside. Ian Montville’s sound design transports the audience to the sea.

Cast of These Shining Lives at Miami

“Do we want to whine or make some noise?” the women ask. Get inspired by these charming activists who fight for their lives to say “We’re progress and victory.” Contact the Miami Theatre Box Office for tickets or call  Miami Box Office 513-529-3200.

Liz Eichler has an MTA in Theatre, and an MBA in Marketing. She’s been both a professional Costumer and Marketer, and has taught at multiple colleges and universities in multiple states for over 20 years. Liz is a past-president of LCT and has been involved for over 10 years.

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