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04 November 2015

Pennsylvania: North Hills Students Have Story to Tell in 'Radium Girls'

Is history repeating itself, with the current craze for wearable wireless tech?

North Hills students have story to tell in 'Radium Girls'
by Laurie Rees, triblive.com, [Pittsburgh, PA suburb], 3 November 2015

Throughout the past 40 years, Glen Richey, 69, of McCandless, has directed nearly 70 plays and musicals at North Hills High School, a majority of which have aimed to uplift audience members.

He knows this year's play, “Radium Girls,” will be different.

“Audiences will be surprised to find how bad they feel when they leave,” said Richey, director of this year's play and a retired North Hills theater teacher.

“Radium Girls,” which runs Nov. 12-14 at 7:30 p.m. in the North Hills High School auditorium in Ross, is the true story of the United States Radium Corporation and its female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning by painting digits that glowed on trendy watch dials using luminous paint made from radium. The story takes place in the 1920s, when radium still was a new and mysterious discovery.

The women, who had been told the paint was harmless, ingested deadly amounts of radium by licking their paintbrushes to give them a fine point for their delicate work. At the end of the work day, the women would playfully paint their teeth to make their smiles shimmer, and their fingernails and faces to scare their husbands.

Their exposure caused serious health effects, including sores, anemia, bone fractures, and cancer.

Natalie Just, 17, of Ross, plays the lead role of Grace Fryer, one of the five female plant workers who sued the company and were dubbed the “Radium Girls.”

“Grace quit school and got a job at the factory when she was 15 because her family needed money. Painting watches was an easy job to do, but she began to notice that something was wrong. She'd go home and notice that her hairbrush and clothes glowed,” said Just, a junior at North Hills High School.

The company tried to cover up the facts, doctors falsely and deliberately attributed the women's ailments to syphilis, and the courts delayed their case repeatedly.

By the time their first appearance in court finally came, two of the women were bedridden, and none of them could raise their arms to take oath. The play covers 11 years of Fryer's life, from the time she started working at the factory until she died at the age of 27.

“The hardest part about this role is growing up with the character and getting older, maturing, and getting sickly,” Just said.

Isabella Roll, 17, of Ross, plays Fryer's co-worker and co-plaintiff, Katherine Schaub.

“The story made me sad because it happened to girls my age. It's a little unsettling to think a company would cover up and not care about girls dying, rather than righting their wrong,” said Roll, a senior.

The cast of 30 is set upon a stark stage adorned with oversized, glow-in-the-dark clocks.

“It's a minimal set to allow the audience to get the full talent of the kids on stage. There's no dazzle,” Richey said.

Prior to rehearsals, most of the cast had never heard the story. As students were given their parts, they began researching their characters online.

“It's educational theater,” Richey said. “As the kids continue to learn more and more about what happened, they just go, ‘Wow.'”

Laurie Rees is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.


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