A ticking clock will be the first sound audience members hear of the Elgin Community College performance of “These Shining Lives” by Melanie Marnich this spring. The play follows the true story of women working in the 1920s at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois, and their battle for justice against the horrors of radium poisoning.
The intimate story centers around Catherine Donohue, a young woman, 19-years-old, who takes a job at the watch company and relishes in the empowerment and camaraderie she finds from her employment. The audience will get well acquainted with Catherine and the rest of the actors since the production has only six cast members.
Susan Robinson, a professor of theatre at ECC and the director of “These Shining Lives,” enjoys the opportunity to select the productions, yet finds it challenging to make a selection that meets all of her standards and the needs of her students.
“’I’m so glad that I get to be the one to choose the plays, but…I have very specific parameters [for selecting a play],” Robinson said. “I have to pick plays that are going to work for my students within the timeframe and work out given where we are in the world like right now. Also, there are often very new actors (whom I love working with) so I need to pick a play that they will be successful in. Right now because of COVID, I need to pick a… [play with a smaller cast] since some rehearsals will be in person.”
While the play centers around the story of one woman from 100 years ago, through detailing and her life, job, and relationships, it touches on modern themes of corporate greed, workers’ rights, gender equality. As Catherine battles disease brought on by the very work that excited her and gave her independence, the audience is brought into a dark comical irony that challenges their expectations and leaves them thinking.
According to Kristin Fox, Director of Education of the Merrill Arts Center in Woodbury, MN, and author of the graduate thesis “The Directing of Melanie Marnich’s These Shining Lives” in 2018, the production is a very relevant choice given its themes.
“At the root of it “These Shining Lives” is about a group of women who went up against a tyrant company to… demand better safety,” Fox said. “The major themes of “These Shining Lives” of corporate greed, misinformation in the media and the all-around suppression of the truth directly correlate to the world as we know it today.”
“These Shining Lives” was not just an attractive choice to Robinson because it eased some of the technical challenges of directing a play at this time, but because it fulfilled her mission to use the theatre to encourage thoughtful reflection in her audience.
“It’s really hard and then my most important thing is that I feel like my time needs to be spent on matters of injustice,” Robinson said. “I have a platform with theatre, and I need to use it in order to further conversation.”
Robinson is excited to be directing but does expect there to be difficulties with the production given limitations of social distancing. Robinson wants to ensure the audience feels connected to the characters and cares for the relationships between them even though physical touching on stage will not be possible for the safety of the students.
“With Covid, it is so much more of a challenging play,” Robinson said. “There is all this kissing, hugging and touching that the [lead roles do], but we can’t do that. How do you show love six feet apart?”
Fox also predicts this to be a difficult challenge to overcome.
“This show features some very intimate scenes between [the leads] and to not have those moments would make it hard to build up their love and deep passion for each other,” Fox said. “We as an audience need to care about their love otherwise [the ending] will fall flat when instead it should set hearts on fire.”
Solutions for these challenges will be searched for in rehearsals over the coming weeks and “These Shining Lives” will be filmed and streamed for viewing May 15-18.