At the beginning of World War I, a young woman named Grace Fryer went to work for the United States Radium Corporation.
Radium was a relatively new discovery that was used in health remedies and as a way to paint luminescent watch faces for the soldiers fighting overseas.
Like the other women who supported the war effort by taking up jobs painting watch faces and dials with radium, Fryer just wanted to do her part.
Fryer and her coworkers were instructed to place their brushes in their mouths to make a fine point, dip them in the radium and paint. They would repeat this hundreds of times over the course of the day.
The workers had no idea this could have deadly consequences.
Eventually, Fryer’s coworkers began getting sick and dying from their exposure to the radioactive substance. Jawbones would crumble, teeth would fall out and massive tumors formed on the unwitting workers.
The UAA Department of Theatre and Dance’s upcoming production of “Radium Girls” is based on the true story of Fryer’s fight for justice.
“I think the main thing that I’m struck by is that the characters were real women who went into this job at a very young age — at 15 years old — excited to do their part for the war effort to support their brothers and husbands… and really had no idea how their life was going to unfold after that,” Nova Cunningham, director of the play, said.
In addition to Fryer and the Radium Girls’ fight for justice, Cunningham said the play examines America’s obsessions with health, wealth and the commercialization of science. Fryer’s struggle isn’t just against corporations, but society as well.
“I mean, here’s Grace [Fryer] trying to say, ‘I think something’s not quite right here’ and everybody’s saying, ‘No, no, no. That cant be right,’” Cunningham said.
Alexandra McCall plays the role of Fryer. McCall sees her as a regular girl from New Jersey with traditional American values. Fryer just wants to live a normal life with kids and a family, but she needs work and manages to find what seems like a good job.
“She just sort of has this journey of transforming from this person who is sort of on this path to something else to where she has to start fighting for justice,” something Fryer didn’t expect she would have to do, McCall said.
Fryer’s antagonist in “Radium Girls” is her employer Arthur Roeder, played by Jake Beauvais. Beauvais sees Roeder as being a “big ideas” kind of guy whose ambition eventually leads to his downfall. While Roeder could be considered the villain in the play, Beauvais sees him as a sympathetic character.
“He’s not a mustache-twirling villain,” Beauvais said. “He’s simply just trying to obtain his vision of the American Dream.”
McCall sees the story as a class struggle, fought by young women who might have been more likely to get taken advantage of during the 1910s and ’20s.
“The issue that you are shown is how a corporation can neglect all of these people who are contributing to what they do, just because [corporations] have, you know, money and power,” McCall said.
Even though the events took place around 100 years ago, beginning in the first decades of the 1900s, Beauvias thinks that the issues addressed in “Radium Girls” are relevant today from marginalized workers in China to unsafe commercial chemicals sold by giant corporations.
“It’s the darker side of human nature,” Beauvias said. “Those things will keep happening, but the more we are aware of them, the more we can prevent [them] through legislation.”
“Radium Girls” opens Friday, Oct. 20. Tickets are $9.99 for students, $14.99 for seniors and military and $19.99 for adults.
For showtimes, tickets and more information go to www.artsuaa.com.