OPENING TONIGHT: “Radium Girls” Historical Drama @ Valborg Theatre

OPENING TONIGHT: “Radium Girls” Historical Drama @ Valborg Theatre
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By Christina Beals. October 4th, 2017. BOONE, NC — During the 1920s, a mysterious and magical new chemical became the backbone of a successful US corporation.  It facilitated the invention of “glow-in-the-dark” watches — and the lost lives of many young women.

Radium Girls, written by D.W. Gregory, is a play that tells the story of three of the thousands of girls who died at the hands of radium poisoning while hand-painting watch dials with radium-based, luminous paint.

Over the course of Wednesday, October 4th through Sunday, October 8th, Appalachian State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance is performing the play in Boone’s Valborg Theatre under the direction of Gordon Hensley.

One of the three radium girls, Grace Fryer, is at the forefront of making sure that the mysterious case of her fellow friends and colleagues dying at the hands of the US Radium Corporation have their day in court finding a measure of justice, however empty.

Along with the telling of women’s suppression is also the power of women’s defiance from being silenced.

In this rendition of the true story performed by the Appalachian State cast, Appalachian State  junior Virginia Riggsbee plays the role of Grace Fryer.

“Grace Fryer is an actual woman who worked in the U.S. Radium Factory in the 1920s,” Riggsbee explained to Blowing Rock News. “She was the first person to fight against the [US Radium Corporation] and decided to sue. Without her constant determination, there would not have been any justice for the radium girls.”

What is so unique about the department’s take on the story is the underlying themes, applicable to today’s society, that are spoken to the audience through the script and enactment of it.

“There is definitely a gender-binary theme in the show,” observed Gordon Hensley in an interview for this story. “This happened between 1918-1928, in a time where women were a lesser group in society. They were stay-at-home (moms). Even women who worked were criticized because that was a man’s job. Not only is that written into the show, but you’ll see that, directorially, there are several moments where the men are patronizing to the women, and are overpowering.”

The overarching message of women being heard is applicable to society, but can especially be applicable to college campuses, as well.

Shane Buchheit, an Appalachian State sophomore, primarily plays the role of Arthur Roeder in the play.

“If we do our job right, we will give the audience an emotional punch in the gut. The current culture right now has a lot of debate about believing and trusting them in situations that men cause, especially on college campuses,” Buchheit said.

Along with the telling of women’s suppression is also the power of women’s defiance from being silenced.

In the patriarchal 1920s society, the play exposes the power of what a group of women are truly capable of in overcoming the discrimination that was continuously faced by them.

She is a progressive thinker and her battle is to make the world a better place for the little people who have no voice.

Mary Sass is “Irene” in the play, one of the three radium girls, and also performs the role of Katherine Wiley.

“Katherine Wiley,” Sass noted, “a character I also have the joy of playing, was a powerful feminist of the 1920’s and played a big part in getting these girls what was owed to them. Wiley stands up for the working-class men and women of her state. She is a progressive thinker and her battle is to make the world a better place for the little people who have no voice. She continues to advocate for these suffering girls and does all she can do to get them the justice they deserve, which she eventually does.”

Other themes exposed through the story are the true intentions of large corporations and as consumers, becoming more educated and aware of the contents that make up the products we get from those corporations.

“The common people are helpless against the corporate people and money to try to have some type of defense,” Hensley states.

In the 1920s, the utter wonder of the Radium chemical was romanticized via the American media and throughout society. All over the play’s stage display several enticing posters of Radium-based products, catered to catch the buyers’ eye: Tru-Radia Lipstick, X-Radium Foot Warmer, Radium Brand Premium Butter.

Hensley went on to state to Blowing Rock News that it is vital for people to open their eyes and become more attentive to the correlation between what we are putting in our bodies as consumers, and what society is telling us to do.

Beyond the themes at-hand is the delightful challenge that the 10 actors face: fulfilling the 30 roles of the play.

The strength of this production is in the Radium Girls cast’s ability to communicate this unique piece of American literature’s persuasive themes, but the audience will marvel at the actors’ respective abilities to switch characters so seamlessly.

Through exposing the true ambitions and depth of women, the extremities of a patriarchal and corporation-ruled society, and a fatal, toxic light, Radium Girls will touch audience members in telling ways.

Show tickets can be purchased at the Valbourg Theatre box office either in-person, by calling the office at 828-262-3063, or by going on their website at

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