Spring Play Radium Girls Brings New Level of Intensity to OHS Theater

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Spring Play Radium Girls Brings New Level of Intensity to OHS Theater

Senior Katherine Dore runs lines during rehearsal for her character, Nancy Jane Harlan, a tabloid reporter.

Senior Katherine Dore runs lines during rehearsal for her character, Nancy Jane Harlan, a tabloid reporter.

Senior Katherine Dore runs lines during rehearsal for her character, Nancy Jane Harlan, a tabloid reporter.

Senior Katherine Dore runs lines during rehearsal for her character, Nancy Jane Harlan, a tabloid reporter.

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English teacher and play director Kelsie Balon predicts that the OHS spring musical, Radium Girls by D. W. Gregory, is one that will soon become a classic, favorite high school show, much like Arsenic and Old Lace. As the OHS theater program is at the leading edge, embracing a soon-to-be popular play before most high schools in the area catch on, Balon is thrilled for the Orono community to see the play this April.

Radium Girls is a historical drama inspired by a tragic and true story. During World War II, many teenage girls quit school to work in factories, painting luminescent radium paint on watch dials for American men at war. At the time, radium was seen as a miracle cure–not a substance with any potential risks.

However, over the years the factory girls, or “radium girls” as they became known, begin to fall ill to a mysterious disease (even leading to a scene in which a girl’s entire jaw, turned black, is pulled out of her mouth). Throw in timeless themes, powerful women taking a multimillion-dollar corporation to court, then dark comedy paired with morose moments, and Radium Girls emerges.

“This is the best cast I’ve seen for the spring play. Every rehearsal I’m just blown away by what the actors are capable of–this is not one that you want to miss,” stage manager and senior Kristin Pearson said, “it’s not anything like any show we’ve done in recent years, it’s a new kind of acting, different level of emotional intensity … it’s not a story we hear much about in school, but still a relevant and important one, it’s insane the things that went down and what the radium corporation did to their workers.”

The cast consists of 25 students and five crew members, with most students (other than the leads) taking on four to five roles. Junior Gabi Schafer plays Grace Fryer–the leading woman and dial painter who challenges her former boss Arthur Roeder, played by junior Wels Bowen, in court.  Other notable leads are Fryer’s friend Kathryn Schaub, played by freshman Kari Mika; Fryer’s love interest Tom Kreider, played by Milo Sforza and Dr. Von Sochocky, the inventor of radium paint, played by junior Dylan Mika.

Balon selected the show this past fall after getting to know many of the students involved in theater. This is her first school year teaching at Orono High School.

“I thought that this show would be a really great way to include a lot of people … there are close to 40 characters in the show … they all have like four or five different roles and they flip in and out of these roles. There’s not a lot of shows that allow you to have that much versatility based on the amount of people that try out,” Balon said, “I liked that it tells a really compelling story in a really beautiful way, I like that it’s based off of true history and that it specifically tells a story that not a lot of people have heard of and is about female empowerment.”

Radium Girls takes place in New Jersey, so fittingly much of the cast will spend the eight weeks of rehearsal sharpening up their Jersey accent. Balon said that a German accent, New York accent, and Southern accent will make an appearance as well. New too, is the set design. The stage will be transformed into a spinning, turntable with a glow-in-the-dark clock painted on it. Pearson said that there will be several other glow-in-the-dark elements incorporated into the show.

Many of the actors are doubling down and helping with other aspects of the production, like costumes. Junior Maddie Schafer who plays Mrs. Roeder, Arthur’s wife and moral compass,  is experimenting with prop design for the first time. “I’ve made glowing watches and a decaying jawbone in a jar, along with the ‘radium’ bottles. I’m having a really fun time doing props and it’s presented me with a crafting challenge,” Schafer said.

For those who do not typically enjoy theater, or perhaps have a short attention span, this play has a unique appeal in that the scenes are much briefer than those in other productions. The fast-paced scenes flip quickly in tone too, from somber to lighthearted to darkly comedic.

Balon noted two characters who add an interesting tone to the story–a couple of 1920’s reporters who manage to maintain an upbeat demeanor despite the tragedy that continues around them. Balon said that there are moments in the play where they make brutal comments to the girls, “like ‘you’re gonna die soon!’” in a, somehow, friendly tone.

“Because they are reporters they get away with it because they are just talking about a headline … we kind of take a look too at that element of the human experience,” Balon said, “how we commercialize and how we publicize human tragedy and how it’s all about getting the next big headline, selling the most papers, and how frequently, because of that, we tend not to focus on the human emotion tied to the story.  And this play dives deep into that human emotion.”

Other seemingly timeless parallels can be made between the lessons from Radium Girls to life today. Before the truth of how radium harmed the girls came out, radium was seen as a medical cure-all, not a toxin to avoid ingesting. However, as science progressed and more discoveries were made, the public perception switched. No longer was radium seen purely as helpful medicine, it was seen for the potential harms it possessed too.

When it comes to people putting substances in their bodies without understanding the full risks–because science has not yet explored them enough–Balon said she sees parallels in the high school. She used Juuling as an example.

Radium Girls is an hour and a half long and will be performed at the high school auditorium on April 25, 26 and 27 at 7:00 pm. There will be a 2:00 pm showing on April 27 as well.

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