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Theater Review: Red Herring’s Moving Historical Drama ‘These Shining Lives’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theater Review: Red Herring’s Moving Historical Drama ‘These Shining Lives’Red Herring's These Shining Lives - Photo courtesy Jerri Shafer and JAMS Photography
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Time leads us all to our deaths. Melanie Marnich’s These Shining Lives, directed by Nancy Shelton Williams in a punch-in-the-gut production for Red Herring, grapples with that incontrovertible truth, along with the human need to be remembered, to feel a part of something, and the hunger for justice.

These Shining Lives follows four women – Catherine Donohue (Ella Palardi), Francis (Elizabeth Girvin), Charlotte (Anita McFarren), and Pearl (Emily Turner) who painted clock faces with a radium powder solution for Ottawa, Illinois’ Radium Dial Company. When the lie that radium was harmless – propagated by the company (played by Scott Landis Wilson, usually as their direct manager Mr. Reed) – revealed itself with horrific radium poisoning, they sued and ultimately won damages, for Catherine to die days later. 

Marnich’s play moves along at a clip – Williams’ production comes in at a tight 90 minutes. While it gives us some stunning images and a sharpened sense of irony, occasionally it sacrifices some poetry and ambiguity for a leaden directness. It’s to the credit of the sterling ensemble that these women, drawn in such quick strokes of writing, never let me forget they’re flesh and blood people. The warmth of the characters’ chemistry keeps them from turning into only symbols.  

That ensemble orbits around a volcanic performance from Ella Palardi who leads us on the journey of a vibrant woman trying to do what’s right, through everything good that can come from work – camaraderie and independence; feeling as though you’re part of something larger; being part of a team – and the way those feelings get turned against her. She does all this in parallel with a gut-wrenching physical transformation as the character succumbs to disease, without any benefit of classic stage tricks. 

As stunning as Palardi’s Catherine is, the chemistry and nuance the other three actors bring makes the world of 1920s suburban Chicago come to life. Emily Turner’s delightful Pearl sells the character’s admittedly bad jokes with such charm that it leaves no doubt the other women would let her tell one any time she asks. Anita McFarren’s Charlotte, hipper and cynical, and Elizabeth Girvin’s Francis, a charming center of moral gravity, serve as catalyst and ballast, reminders of the ways we suffer together and the ways we keep each other alive. 

Scott Landis Wilson and Rick Clark make the most of very reactive roles. Neither shies away from the thoughtless damage men are capable of, but they also don’t play either character as a cartoon. Wilson’s Mr. Reed is a study in one of the hardest things to play, the banality of evil, he makes us believe him when he says, “They lied to me, too,” while carrying the guilt and culpability of someone who didn’t walk away from the money when he did know.  

Clark’s Tom – and the doctor who finally diagnoses the women – never drifts to sitcom caricature, his and Palardi’s expert timing, bouncing off each other, imply a happy marriage without going saccharine. 

Red Herring’s These Shining Lives – Photo courtesy Jerri Shafer and JAMS Photography

Where I might have periodically wanted a scalpel – a sequence where Catherine throws the last week’s paycheck Reed gives her as he fires her and says, “This is a crime!” was among a handful of moments that felt extremely on-the-nose – I was more often thrilled by the unabashed deployment of its sledgehammer.

These Shining Lives uses that starkness and directness to remind us that this tragedy is important. Important enough to strip away some of the filigree and lay bare the ugly truth of how disposable people are when the machine says so.  

These Shining Lives is the kind of political theater you don’t see much of anymore, that grounds its historical tragedy in the vital reminder that every story is about people. That the grandest scale of ugly malfeasance always comes down to consequences for the people with the least agency – but it is also a necessary reminder that fighting is worth it and a clarion call to not despair. 

These Shining Lives runs through October 17 with performances at 8 p.m.Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more information, visit redherringtheater.org.

Red Herring’s These Shining Lives – Photo courtesy Jerri Shafer and JAMS Photography
Red Herring’s These Shining Lives – Photo courtesy Jerri Shafer and JAMS Photography
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