WESTERN SPRINGS – Thanks to the efforts of a group of women who suffered from radiation poisoning in the 1920s, countless lives have been saved after their fight against big corporations led to changes in workplace safety regulations and company liability. Their little-known true story is being told in the play “Radium Girls,” which runs Feb. 8 through 18 at the Theatre of Western Springs.
The play, which was written by D.W. Gregory, tells the story of women who painted glow-in-the-dark watch dials with radium-based paint at the U.S. Radium Corp. in New Jersey in 1918. At the time, radium was thought of as a miracle, but soon, the women began getting sick while their employer denied any wrongdoing and insisted the paint was safe. Even though most of the women died before settlements were distributed, their lawsuits paved the way for sweeping changes in the workplace, which still benefits workers today, “Radium Girls” Director Greg Kolack said.
He said all of the characters in the play were real people and explained it focuses on one woman who led the fight against the company in Orange, N.J.
“It’s a powerful story about a subject people don’t know about. These women got very sick and suffered tremendously,” he said. “We’re doing the play to educate people and continue the legacy of these amazing women. There is humor in the play, but it’s sad what these women went through. The audiences will be angry because the company knew what was happening but did nothing and then tried to delay the lawsuits so they wouldn’t have to pay settlements.”
Eddie Sugarman, executive director of the Theatre of Western Springs, said he is excited to bring this play to the community because the story is a good reminder of what happens when companies put profits ahead of people.
“I hope audiences will be inspired by the bravery of these girls, who in the face of death, tried to make the world more just,” he said. “We want people to think a little bit about being responsible and being accountable. It’s a deeply engaging human story about real people whose lives were fundamentally altered and showed great courage. It’s about everyday people in extraordinary circumstances.”
While “Radium Girls” focuses on the New Jersey case against the U.S. Radium Corp., similar events were taking place right around the same time in Ottawa. Several women who worked for the Radium Dial Co. also were getting sick and sued the company, which is no longer in existence.
Just as rehearsals for “Radium Girls” were getting underway in early January, Kolack and the cast took a trip to Ottawa to visit the statue dedicated to the “radium girls” on the site of the former factory and the La Salle County Historical Society, which has an exhibit dedicated to the girls.
“When I’ve done shows on real people or true events, whenever possible, I think it’s important to meet the people or visit the site,” Kolack said. “We were able to see this history, and it brought it home that these were real people who suffered tremendously.”
Sugarman said tickets are selling quickly, and he encouraged those who are interested to get tickets soon.
If you go
WHAT: “Radium Girls”
WHERE: Theatre of Western Springs, 4384 Hampton Ave., Western Springs
WHEN: Feb. 8 through 18
COST: $20 to $22
INFO: theatreofwesternsprings.com, 708-246-3380