Malibu High School’s Theater Department has done it again, this time with a serious drama. “Radium Girls,” by D. W. Gregory, was performed at the high school last Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and on Sunday afternoon. The play concerns workplace safety and a battle by little people against large corporate interests. It is regretful that the department’s productions receive so few performances.
The play deals with the radium poisoning suffered by young women who worked in a New Jersey factory during World War I applying radium-based luminescent paint to watches. No safety protection was provided. In fact, they were instructed to lick the tips of their paintbrushes to sharpen the point. Many suffered necrosis of the jaw and anemia and some died. The company physicians claimed that their debilitating symptoms were caused by “vitamin deficiency” and “poor diet.” Even Madame Curie pronounced the paint safe. The ensuing litigation was eventually settled by the payment of $10,000 and $10 a week for life to each victim, plus medical expenses. This was substantially higher than the pittance the company initially offered. The case led to the enactment of laws improving workplace safety.
A large cast, with some actors in multiple roles, performed up to the high standard the Malibu High School Theater Department has set for itself in prior productions. The tragic events depicted could easily have been performed in a manner that descended into pathos. This was avoided by the actor’s theatrical discipline. The characters and their emotions were entirely believable. The suffering of the radium girls was portrayed vividly but not melodramatically. The pace of the play was brisk and the movement on stage choreographed with precision. Complex audio and lighting features were faultless and the costuming was authentic. It is difficult to single out a particular performance for praise with such an outstanding ensemble cast. But it is easy to recognize the contribution of the director, Judy Plaia. She continues to bring out the best from her student actors. She has helped make our high school, along with the Malibu Stage Company and Smothers Theater, a worthy member of Malibu’s troika of theater venues.