It wasn't a fairy tale or a tragedy, although it had elements of both, but something even better, a play about ordinary people that built to a quietly moving finale. Carpenter Square Theatre's production of “These Shining Lives” is the story of four women working at a Chicago area dial watch firm — dream jobs that turn into nightmares when they all get radium poisoning.
Brytanie Holbrook was superb as the play's narrator-protagonist, Catherine, who starts work in 1922, more than willing to paint glowing dials for 8 cents a timepiece, giving her brush a point by licking it!
Addressing the audience as she bonded with her co-workers, Holbrook seemed to glow in the role, and not just from the toxic material she was working with, as the upbeat 1920s gave away to the depression era.
Providing excellent support as her fellow workers were Crystal Ecker, Christine Jolly and Allyson Rose, each of whom gave their characters enough foibles to make them stand out as individuals.
Ecker was especially memorable as the talkative, outspoken Charlotte, who first treats Catherine as a rival, but becomes a true friend as well as a catalyst, letting a poker hand decide who will sue the company.
Tall and handsome, but a man of few words, Justin Haley walked a tightrope, like his construction worker character does on high girders, in the part of Catherine's husband, Tom. Haley got across Tom's complex, layered reactions — supportive but patronizing, uneasy with the downside of his wife's job away from their two children, and yet deeply loving despite his mixed emotions.
Particularly powerful was a scene in which Haley confronted Kaleb Bruza, who played the company supervisor with just the right amount of underlying guilt, trumped by self-serving loyalty to his job.
Multiple roles allowed performers to play doctors, for and against the women's cause, as well as a lawyer, court reporter, judge and children, on the simple set, neatly divided into home, work and courtroom areas.
Adding to the period flavor of the play by Melanie Marnich, which premiered in 2008 in Baltimore, were catchy tunes, comments on gangsters and movie idols, and a foreboding tick-tocking sound.
Deftly directed by Terry Veal with excellent costumes by Corey Martin, the powerful but also poetically evocative Carpenter Square offering — especially in its references to light and time — is highly recommended.
— John Brandenburg