A play for family audiences. Suitable for educational theater and youth theater, it is also a popular choice among community theatres and small professional theaters. Available from Dramatic Publishing.
Based on the true story of the dial painters who made labor history.
The story: 1926. Radium is a miracle cure, Madame Curie an international celebrity, and luminous watches the latest rage. Until the girls who paint those watch dials begin to die. Based on the true story of the women and men who worked for the U.S. Radium Corporation in Orange, N.J., and originally written for nine actors to double into 38 roles. Radium Girls is a fast-paced stage play. A wry examination of the commercialization of science and the twin American obsessions with the pursuit of health and wealth makes this original drama from DW Gregory a continually relevant and entertaining choice for production.
- Finalist, Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference
- Finalist, New Harmony Project
- National Endowment for the Arts Production Grant
- Best New Play of 1999 – 2000, Newark Star-Ledger
- Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project Grant, 2001
- Winner, Best Production, The Burlington Players, AACTFEST 2013
“A compelling new drama…the playwright lays out the facts with historical accuracy, descriptive simplicity and graphic candor. ” – VARIETY
“The best new play in New Jersey professional theatre.” – THE NEWARK STAR LEDGER
“…a genuine theatrical gift.” – CHICAGO STAGE REVIEW
“Radium Girls may speak to our collective capacity for denial. But it also celebrates our individual courage.” – THE DAILY RECORD, MORRISTOWN, N.J.
“… a playwright with a talent to enlighten and provoke.” – THE NEW YORK TIMES
A UIL-approved drama stage play for high school theater competitions, Radium Girls is also suitable for professional theater and community theater companies. The large cast play features many strong roles for females, making it a popular choice among school theater programs. Written for nine to 10 actors to double into 38 parts, this drama can be performed by smaller casts in competition, doubling parts among four to five males and five females. Suitable for general audiences, this highly acclaimed original play examines the constant push-and-pull of American capitalism against perennial questions of responsibility to one’s community and one’s conscience. Radium Girls draws from a stunning chapter in U.S. labor history and the history of science and ties well into multiple aspects of the middle school and high school curriculum. Among community theaters, it has been a popular choice for production during Women’s History Month.
Run Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with an intermission
9 actors or 10 actors
Radium Girls was originally produced at Playwrights’ Theatre of New Jersey, directed by Joseph Megel and produced by John Pietrowski, producing director.
Since then Radium Girls has received more than 1,800 productions throughout the United States and abroad, including Australia, Canada, Great Britain, India, Ireland, Germany, and New Zealand.
FAQs from Drama Teachers and Students
Radium Girls is one of the most produced plays in U.S. high schools, with more than 1,800 productions as of September 2023. I often get requests from drama teachers to conduct Q&A sessions with their students working on a production of the play. Some of the same questions come up over and over and so I thought I’d post a few of them here.
1. What’s your general advice on producing the play?
Keep it simple.
Keep it moving.
Don’t be afraid of the comedy. Where it is funny—let it be funny.
It’s an impressionistic play – a Brechtian mélange of naturalistic scenes punctuated by presentational—and largely comical—moments. In its premiere, the play was staged on a unit set with two long, narrow wooden tables and eight wooden chairs that stayed on stage through the entire play and stood in for every stick of furniture in the show. So in the factory, the tables are set side by side to serve as two workbenches. When Marie Curie shows up they are pushed together on the short end to become a stage. In the dining room they are pushed together on the long side to form the dining room table. (Covered with a tablecloth). In Roeder’s office, one table is set off at an angle to become his desk and the other pushed up stage to become a worktable or a credenza – and so forth and so on. These changes are done by the actors as the lights shift—they take only a few seconds.
In the original staging at Playwrights’ Theatre of New Jersey (Joseph Megel, directing) chairs not in use in a scene were set upstage or off to either side and the actors who were not in the scene sat in those chairs to observe the action. That was an interesting effect and not something I’ve seen done in other productions.
But the bottom line is: the play is impressionistic, so the production style should be impressionistic. Don’t bog down your production with big, heavy naturalistic set pieces that have to be lugged on and off. Really. Two tables, six to eight straight-back wooden chairs and you have it all. You don’t need to haul in an actual couch for the parlor scene—push three chairs together and bingo! You have your couch.
Lights, costumes, sound will put us in time and place.
2. What was the best production you’ve ever seen?
Aside from the premiere, an exquisitely staged production at the University of Washington in Seattle. It was an expansive stage that he used to full effect. In addition to the tables and few chairs, the director had three long window units that moved in and out – rearranging those units also help set new locations. It was elegant in its simplicity. A breathtakingly beautiful show.
3. What was the worst?
Won’t name the theatre but hoo boy. The most over-produced mess. The director loaded up a full dining room suite on a wagon and hauled it in – loaded up a heavy wooden desk for Roeder’s office, loaded up a hospital bed—and so forth ad nauseum. It became a play about moving furniture. So awful I couldn’t stay. Fled at intermission.
4. What is your feeling about casting girls in parts originally written for guys?
I understand the drama teacher’s dilemma when not enough boys turn out for auditions, which can be an even greater challenge if you’re not doubling any parts, as some schools do. I don’t have a problem with casting girls in supporting male roles — Mr. Markley, for example, or Dr. Knef or Dr. Martland. I would not cast a girl in any of the male leads, for obvious reasons. So Roeder, Tom, and Lee should be played by guys. What I do object to is changing the gender of the character. This is a world in which the men hold the power and the women are fighting to be heard. Thus, changing Mr. Markley to Miss Markley would seriously undercut the play. So if you have to cast – or want to cast – a girl in any of these parts, make it clear that the character is a man. The script already provides for cross-gender casting in the boardroom scene – if you do the play with 10 actors, for example, you absolutely need to use the women to fill out the board – but the board members are all men. So you could do more of that cross-gender casting if you wanted to.
Now if you happen to be in a community that will give you a lot of pushback for cross-gender casting, then I’m afraid I can’t help you. I won’t approve any production that changes the genders of the characters. However, my experience is that much of that resistance these days is to guys playing women—not the other way around.
5. What inspired you to write the play?
Short answer: I stumbled across an article about the New Jersey case. It was actually a chapter from a book on mass communication and the Consumer’s League campaign to sway public opinion about the dial painters’ cases. I read it and thought: This is a play.
Longer answer: I was already aware of the Radium Girls long before I found the article. I’d heard about the dial painters when I was in elementary school, and I remember my shock at the time: How could something like this happen? How is it possible? Fast forward about 20 years and I was living in Rochester, New York. At the time, The George Eastman house sponsored a film series where filmmakers screened new work and took audience questions afterwards. One of those films was a documentary about a dial painting factory in Ottawa, Illinois. It was called Radium City. The filmmaker, an NYU professor named Carole Langer, had produced a stunning, wrenching film about the lingering impact this factory had on the community long after it had shut down. After watching it, I went away feeling there was so much more to the story, so much more about the women that I wanted to know. So when I came across that article about the New Jersey cases, it all clicked. By then, I’d developed a working relationship with Playwrights’ Theatre of New Jersey, and so it was a natural fit to pitch the play there. Which I did.
6. In your mind, what is the big takeaway from Radium Girls?
That a culture of compliance creates victims.
There is certainly more than that to glean from the story – it’s also about the uses of denial, and the lengths we will go to in order to protect ourselves from painful truths.
7. Who is your favorite character in the play?
I can’t say I have a favorite, but Arthur Roeder is the most intriguing. He is a true believer, convinced that radium is a gift to humankind. When evidence emerges about the dangers, he cannot accept it. Radium is used in medical treatments of cancer. It is actually effective in shrinking tumors. So how can it possibly be making these girls sick? Roeder chooses a path many people choose—denial. And he goes out and finds an ‘expert’ who will tell him what he wants to hear. That buys him a little time but it doesn’t change the facts; there is a tsunami coming and he’s about to be swamped by it.
8. Why is so much of the play about Roeder? Why didn’t you just focus on the women?
This goes back to the initial question that compelled me to write the play. How could this happen? Why does it keep on happening? Substitute any other consumer product that turned out to be deadly – tobacco, fen-phen, asbestos – and the same pattern plays out: denial, cover-up, confidential settlements with isolated victims, followed by a big blow-up: lawsuit, public exposure, mounting public pressure and finally, some kind of concession—a conviction in court or a massive settlement—from a company that, it turns out, knew about the dangers all along.
But if you write just about the people who are injured, you are writing about victims in isolation. Their adversaries are unseen forces. But if you bring the corporate people into the story you now have the adversary on stage, and it get a little more interesting because now you have a contest. However, I wasn’t interested in writing a courtroom drama – though the play does get to the court by the end. I was interested in wrestling with this question: How could this happen? Why does it keep on happening?
To wrestle with that question you have to look at the people responsible for the catastrophe. The impulse there, though, is to present them as villains: heartless, cruel, cold, greedy etc. But what happens if you present them as complex human beings? What happens when you put the company man on stage and give him a wife and a daughter and a community and a sense of himself as a good man? This is someone who believes in his product and thinks he can do great things for humanity, who is suddenly confronted with facts he can’t accept. His miracle cure is no cure at all. It’s a poison. What does he do? What would you do? What would anyone do? If you’ve got your whole life savings invested in this company and your livelihood and reputation hang in the balance? You’d like to think you’d bravely confront these inconvenient facts and handle it all so much better than Roeder did. But would you?
All of that, to me, was a far more interesting—and complicated—story.
For more production tips and pointers, check out the customer comments posted at https://www.dramaticpublishing.com/radium-girls. You’ll find advice on how to create glowing faces and other tips on staging. If you’d like to know more about me and my other work, check out my website www.dwgregory.com