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‘Radium Girls’ gives old issues new light

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In the 1920s, a new, luminous element used in everything from makeup to medical treatments caught the world’s attention.

“It was in everything because it was this new miracle cure,” said Wanda Strukus, a lecturer in Northeastern’s theatre department in the College of Arts, Media and Design. “There was no scientific proof it did anything for you, but the world went wild with radium.”

In one factory, young girls applied radium-based paint to the hands and faces of wristwatches. To accomplish such a precise task, the factory girls would lick the tips of their paintbrushes to achieve a perfect point.

“They were eating radium paint without knowing the dangers it posed,” said Strukus, director of an upcoming student production of “Radium Girls,” which opens on Thursday at Northeastern’s Studio Theatre.

At the same time, top scientists and company managers did all they could to avoid contact with radium. That disparity sparked one of the nation’s first court verdicts establishing occupational health and workplace safety laws.

The events of the play, set in 1927, mirror the modern-day world, when issues involving working conditions in the Chinese plants that make Apple products dominate the headlines.

“By doing this play today, we’re suggesting we still think it’s relevant,” Strukus said.

A panel discussion with health, law and journalism faculty addressing issues raised by the play — including legal, media and public health history in the United States — will be held following the Feb. 12 performance of “Radium Girls,” a 2 p.m. matinee.

The first student play of the spring semester is performed in what theatre faculty refer to as the “fast and furious” show, with just over a month to prepare for the performance.

“We like to do this because it gives our students more of a sense of the real world, when you don’t have as much time to put on a show,” Strukus said. “They have three days, not three weeks, to learn their lines.”

Many of the actors and actresses also play multiple roles, a theatrical device that leads audience members to draw comparisons between seemingly different roles.

“When you have the same actor playing the unethical lawyer [and] an ethical scientist, you start to see that there are connections between people, that these people are not just one thing or another,” Strukus said. “It’s a very fine line, maybe, that two people can have the same intentions, but one will use it for evil while the other for good.”

“Radium Girls” will be performed at 8 p.m. on Feb. 9 – 11 and Feb. 14 – 16 and at 2 p.m. on Feb. 12. Tickets are $12 for Tuesday and Wednesday’s performances and $15 on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday’s performance. Tickets are available at the Ell Hall box office or at neu.universitytickets.com.