'Radium Girls' depicts a serious learning opportunity

Story by Ashlee Larrison
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau 

It’s not every day that audiences can travel back in time to nearly 100 years ago.

From left, Gretchen Carpenter as Grace, Maddie Burgess as Kathryn and Anna Mettes as Irene.

But that is what Grand Canyon University’s Ethington Theatre has in store in its production of D.W. Gregory’s “Radium Girls,” which opens Friday night and runs through Sunday, Oct. 17.

Working as a time vessel, the play transports audiences back to 1920s New Jersey and into the true story of the women who faced complications from radium poisoning while painting the luminescent substance onto watches.

The story follows Grace Fryer as she goes from a young watch painter who accidentally ingests radium while on the job to a woman fighting for her day in court. It demonstrates the effects on society when business application comes before medical research.

While it is one of this season’s most serious productions, director Claude Pensis said it still incorporates humor into several scenes.

“It is not lacking light,” he said. “It’s more true to life and more accessible.”

Gregory’s cautionary tale balances the intricacies of everyday life with the tragedies faced by the characters as they come to terms with their fate.

“One of the reasons I like this play is the fact that the playwright D.W. Gregory did not write stereotypical characters,” Pensis said. “She wrote some pretty true-to-life people in some extraordinary situations.”

Nick Boisvert plays Arthur Roeder.

It didn't take long for the story to pique the interest of the cast and crew.

“Getting the chance to tell this story is really unique,” said Gretchen Carpenter, who plays Grace Fryer. “I think there’s a level of catharsis that’s going to be happening in the audience because it’s a really emotional show, and I think that it’s going to capture a lot of hearts.”

Nick Boisvert, who plays Arthur Roeder, was drawn in by the opportunity to portray a complex and multidimensional character who grows throughout the journey.

“Arthur Roeder really spoke to me because he is a good man who is tempted by a lot of evil,” he said. “His story is about overcoming that evil temptation and realizing that he is still a good man and that he is still meant to do good things, regardless of the atrocities he’s been involved with.”

Boisvert was not familiar with the play before it was included in this season’s lineup but quickly embraced it. 

“I fell absolutely in love with the play, and it is now by far one of my favorite plays,” he said. “I think it is just beautifully written, and as someone who enjoys play writing, I have taken a lot of inspiration in my own works from it.”

Students had only three weeks to bring D.W. Gregory's play to life.

The turnaround between productions was tight after “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” was pushed back a week at the start of the fall semester, but the cast and crew took it as an opportunity to test their limits and successfully navigated the obstacles.

As a performer, playing the role of Kathryn, and shop worker in the show, Maddie Burgess got to experience the fast pace from multiple different angles.

“This process has been extremely fast, opposed to our other productions,” she said. “We only had about three weeks to put it up and only two to build the set. It was cool to see the set and the actual rehearsal process kind of come together because it was like, ‘Oh no, are we going to get it done?’ And right before tech week started it all came together. It was very encouraging.”

The production was largely designed by students, many of whom plan to submit their designs to the next Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in the spring.

Scenic designer Karson Cook, a senior majoring in theatre education, is just one example of the many student talents on full display during the production.

“I wouldn't say that this show is specifically minimalistic. However, it honestly is in terms of set and my design simply because all across the board I felt less was more,” he said. “Nothing should distract from the action that's taking place on stage because the whole show is a celebration of the lives of all of these characters that went through this tragedy.”

Jessica Rumrill's costume designs help tell the story.

After reading the story, Cook knew he wanted to be a part of the production and make it his Kennedy Center submission.

“There's just so much power in the story that's being told on stage,” he said. “I wanted to create the world that it exists in simply because of my love for the story.”

From long nights spent memorizing lines to having mere weeks to put together a creative atmosphere for the characters, every inch of the production was handled with the utmost care and attention.

Assistant director Mackenzie Reppy believes audiences will see what a labor of love this has been.

“Of course, in any story that has been adapted from a real-life event, there are some fictional aspects to it. However, everything you see on that stage is real,” she said. “There are raw emotions coming from those performers that are captivating.

“I think that if I, being someone who has seen the show so many times, can still feel that raw emotion, imagine what that would do to a brand-new audience member. There’s just true art on that stage, and I think it would be a real shame if people didn’t see it.”


The play tells the story of 1920s factory workers and the complications they faced after being exposed to radium poisoning.


What: “Radium Girls” by D.W. Gregory

When:  7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, Oct. 8-17

Where: Ethington Theatre

Tickets: $12 admission. Discounted tickets for senior citizens, military personnel, GCU and GCE employees, GCU alumni, children 12 years old and younger, and GCU students.

Information: 602-639-8979 or [email protected]

Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected].


Related content:

GCU Today: Musical murder mystery set to mystify audiences

GCU Today: Ethington season welcomes audiences back indoors


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