STONEHAM — The title "These Shining Lives" suggests something extraordinary, almost magical. In the Stoneham Theatre production, even Cristina Tedesco's ethereal set creates a fairy tale atmosphere, where time is suspended above the day-to-day grind of working-class lives.
Set in the 1920s and early '30s in the fictional Radium Dial Factory on the outskirts of Chicago, Melanie Marnich's "These Shining Lives" is inspired by the true story of the young women who worked at a New Jersey factory, painting luminous numbers on the faces of clocks and watches. By licking the tip of the paintbrush, they made a fine point. They also ingested large amounts of radium, a carcinogen that ultimately killed them.
Catherine (McCaela Donovan), a married mother of two young children, is our narrator, taking us in and out of time as she introduces us to a story she describes as "not a fairy tale, though it starts like one. It's not a tragedy, though it ends like one." Sound designer David Remedios's subtle mix of ticking clocks and heartbeats augments the surreal tone of the piece.
"These Shining Lives" opens with a simple family scene: Catherine is off to her job interview at the Radium Dial Factory, while her ironworker husband Tom (Joe Short) is mostly supportive of her decision to get a job. When she lands it, she meets Pearl (Melis Aker), Charlotte (Kathryn Myles), and Frances (Dakota Shepard), who become not only her co-workers, but her friends. When the women begin to suffer the effects of radium, Catherine summons the courage to stand up to the company and fight its denial that it knowingly poisoned them.
Marnich loads her script with references to the fleeting nature of time, and includes some lovely poetic imagery about things that shine, but her emphasis on atmosphere gets in the way of character development. Pearl is introduced as the joke teller, Charlotte as the brash one, and Frances as the group's moral compass, but Marnich only gives the trio lines that support those definitions; she doesn't allow them to become three-dimensional human beings. Director Caitlin Lowans has cast an excellent quartet of actors to play the four women, but there's simply not enough for anyone but Donovan to do. Marnich is so focused on Catherine's heroism that there's no room for simple human frailties. Before we know it, the play devolves into an attack on big business, rather than an intimate portrayal of women whose lives were cut short by poison and greed. And although Donovan gives Catherine a little sass and spunk, the character's shifts into the role of narrator remove us from the action. The emotional urgency sags.
Tedesco's dreamy set includes a screen that doubles as the factory façade, and also allows projections (by Saulius Slezas) of stars, newspaper headlines, and cancer cells. Behind the screen, Tedesco has suspended the flotsam and jetsam of daily life: a dress, a purse, a grandfather clock, a chaise longue, a brass bed frame, a cloth-covered table, a floor lamp, all floating just out of reach. It's a lovely but somewhat distracting design that only reinforces the fact that our emotional attachment to these characters remains, like these scenic elements, suspended above the characters rather than invested in them.