Alejandra Garcia can relate to the character she portrays in a new play at Midland University.
She describes the central character, Grace Fryer, as a fighter.
And that’s something Garcia said she’s had to be in her life, too.
Garcia is a central character in the show, “Radium Girls.” The public is invited to performances at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10-12 and 2 p.m. Oct. 13 in Kimmel Theatre in the Swanson Hall of Science on the Midland campus.
Tickets are $12 per person or $10 for students and senior citizens.
Lee Meyer, professor of music and theater, is directing the production.
The show – based on true events and real-life people – is about women factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with luminous paint.
Meyer said Madame Marie and her husband Pierre Curie discovered radium thought to be the cure for cancer.
They received the Nobel Prize and Marie Curie was the first woman to receive such an honor.
Radium would be put in the paint so watch dials glowed in the dark for soldiers during World War I.
Factory girls painted the watch dials and their work was intricate.
So to get a nice point on the tips of the brushes, workers were told to put them in their mouths.
The girls then began getting very sick, Meyer said. Their teeth fell out. They’d developed abscesses in their mouths and their jawbones rotted.
But no one believed they had radium poisoning and attributed their illnesses to other things – such as uncleanliness.
Grace Fryer, a dial painter, would fight for her day in court.
Her chief adversary in the play is her former employer, Arthur Roeder, who cannot believe the same element that shrinks tumors could be causing the terrible rash of illness among his employees.
Garcia, who portrayed Helen Keller in the 2018 Midland production of “The Miracle Worker,” plays Fryer. Garcia appreciates Fryer and her role in history.
“She’s fighting for all the girls who don’t have a voice,” Garcia said. “She wants justice for what’s been done to her. There’s poison coursing through her bones and the company won’t admit it. She fights and it’s amazing.”
Garcia has had her own fight.
“I had to fight for life,” the Midland student said. “I went through a mound of depression in high school, where I was in and out of the hospital, trying to see what life was about – and theater really helped me through it.”
She explained how.
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“It gave me a place – a way to view the world in a different light, a different pair of shoes to walk in and see that different perspectives really change how you view your life and life around you,” she said.
Garcia believes both she and Grace fought for a cause.
Alexander Law, who portrayed Capt. Arthur Keller—Helen’s dad in The Miracle Worker – smiles because he’s playing yet another character named Arthur.
This time, Law plays Arthur Roeder, president of the U.S. Radium Company.
“Arthur is a good man, who is doing the wrong things, and I think that is an extraordinarily relatable concept,” Law said. “He’s a family man and he’s got a tremendous amount of responsibility and he’s torn between two worlds – the compassion of being human and the monetary duty of the company.”
Alana Roberg portrays Roeder’s wife, Diane, whose world is crumbling because she’s losing her prestige as the company president’s wife.
Riley Knight is Fryer’s fiancé, Tommy, who wants to be with her – even if it’s not in her best interest.
Meyer noted that all the characters in the play have strife, but there’s more than that aspect to the show.
“Within the play, there’s a lot of love between these characters – between the boyfriend and his fiancée, the wife and husband and the girls,” she said. “I think that’s what makes the play very poignant because there is this great love that’s shown.”
Meyer’s casting includes nursing student Jacqueline Opheim, who portrays Madame Curie.
During her research, Opheim learned that Curie was a battlefield nurse for French soldiers during World War I.
Opheim said she’s blessed to be able to portray Curie, whom she said inspired and paved the way for women in science.
“In many ways, I do feel a connection to her devotion to helping others and encouraging those who are curious to seek answers,” Opheim said.
Opheim noted something else.
“I think this show really shines a light on the idea of ethics in both science and business,” Opheim said.
Opheim believes the play emphasizes the importance of weighing the risks and benefits of each new discovery and recognizing the value of human life.
Knight said the play is a testament to the strength of women.
“A small group of women takes on one of the largest corporations in the world. Even today that’s a huge deal. In the 1920s that was unheard of,” Knight said.
Cast members will stage scenes from the show during the noon luncheon on Oct. 9 at Fremont Opera House, 541 N. Broad St. Cost for the luncheon ticket is $15 per person. Attendees pay with cash or check at the door. Those who buy a luncheon ticket will get into the Midland play for $5.
Meyer commends cast members.
“These students have really internalized their characters and feel the emotion behind the characters,” she said. “They’re telling this very serious story in a very realistic way.”