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Glowing in the black box

Before Riverwalk’s “These Shining Lives” began, tissues were passed out to the audience.

Nearly two and a half hours later when the drama ended, mine were quite damp — partly from watching a horrific story unfold and because of the potency of the production.

That isn’t to say the play is all teary moments. The well-crafted script by Melanie Marnich also includes lots of humor and silliness. “These Shining Lives” has sparkles of singing, flickers of romance and twinkles of joy. It’s bursting with lighthearted and heart-touching slices, with everything tied together by a theme about time and clocks.

The play reflects true events about women who began working at a personal clock factory in Ottawa, Illinois, in the ‘20s. The so-called “Radium Girls” painted luminous dials. The outcomes for such workers — and for the talented foursome who portray them — may seem obvious. But the tragedy and consequences are surprising.

Taylor Rupp is charming, commanding and confident as Catherine Donahue, an employee who championed workers’ rights in the ‘30s. Rupp brings the character to life and often narrates the drama. She deserves frequent spotlights. Her ability to convey a range of emotions is remarkable.

Her three co-workers, Charlotte, Pearl and Francis, are played no less convincingly by Erin Hoffman, Erin Barger and Anasti Her. Each actor embodies her portrayal with a unique personality and memorable image. The trio’s distinctive performances made it hard for me to imagine anyone else in their roles.

Heath Sartorius is believable as Tom Donohue, the husband figure who is also a vulnerable dad. His chemistry with Rupp seems genuine. Heath’s real-life dad, Charles Sartorius, fits his role as the women’s boss, Mr. Reed.

With black risers, black walls, black steps and a black floor, the Riverwalk version is truly a “Black Box” production. The set is sparse, and disguises are trifling for occasional, extra roles. Costume changes are rare during a 16-year narrative span. Despite that, “These Shining Lives” is stirring and totally engaging.

Susan Chmurynsky’s direction keeps shifting scenes rolling and does justice to a script she loved. Her addition of more shared lines and an intermission are welcome.

“These Shining Lives” $12

Through Oct. 7 Thursday, 7 p.m. Friday & Saturday, 8 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m. 228 Museum Drive, Lansing, MI 48901 (517) 482-5700 www.RiverwalkTheatre.com


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