Grace Fryer was 15 when she left school and went to work painting radium on the dials of watches at an Orange, N.J., factory. When she left two years later for a job as a bank teller, she was losing her teeth and had pains in her jaw — the early signs of radiation sickness.
Fryer and several of her former co-workers waged a long legal battle against U.S. Radium Corp. that established the right of individual workers to sue employers because of labor abuses. The women were dubbed the “Radium Girls” by the New York City press and that’s the title D.W. Gregory gave his 2003 play, which tells Fryer’s tragic and compelling story.
“Radium Girls” will be presented this weekend by Husson University Theater, a student club, at the school’s Gracie Theatre. The two-act production has challenged the group’s members, director Mike Churchill, a 21-year-old sophomore at the New England School of Communications, said earlier this week.
The club puts on two shows each year, one in the fall semester, the other in the spring, he explained just before a dress rehearsal began Monday night. Members suggest plays to the board, whose members read them, then make a selection.
“One of our members saw ‘Radium Girls’ last year at [Boston University] and suggested we do it,” Churchill of Raymond said. “Out of all the plays we read, this one gave us the most opportunities to grow.”
The biggest challenge, the director said, was coordinating everyone’s schedule and fitting rehearsal time around all the other activities in which he, the cast and crew are involved. Finding costumes and props appropriate for the time the play takes place, between 1915 and 1926, also was difficult.
“But for me, personally, getting the right emotion from the actors for each moment has been the biggest challenge,” Churchill said. “I knew what I wanted, I just had to find a way to communicate that to them.”
Alexandrea Sleeper said for her, the most difficult aspect of playing Fryer was portraying the character’s escalating illness.
“It’s also really intense emotionally,” the 18-year-old Bangor High School graduate said. “I really have to be in the moment.”
Aging from 15 to 25 and showing the character’s growth also has been a challenge, said Sleeper, who is majoring in business administration.
“But I instantly connected with her and how determined she was,” Sleeper said. “She knew that what was happening was wrong. Her friends and family all disapproved of her pursuing a lawsuit, but she never quit.”
As a first-time director, Churchill said he has sought advice from theater veteran Ken Stack, who has directed hundreds of plays at Acadia Repertory Theatre in Somesville on Mount Desert Island and at The Grand in Ellsworth. Stack teaches entertainment production at NESCom.
“I also call my mother, my family, my friends, anybody who will listen to me for a few minutes so I can complain and when I’m done, I can go back and tell the cast and crew how proud I am of them,” the student director said.
One of the rewards of working with the Husson theater group, according to Churchill, has been learning to use all the technical bells and whistles available in the Gracie, which has been much in demand from community groups since it opened 18 months ago.
“With this play, we’re hoping to reach out past the campus community and get more people from the greater Bangor community in to see what we can offer,” Churchill said. “It’s also a way for us to give back to the community.”
“Radium Girls” also will remind theatergoers who can’t remember a time before the government regulated workplace safety how hazardous going to a job everyday could be.
“Radium Girls” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. today and at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Gracie Theatre at Husson University in Bangor. Cost is $10 for adults and $5 for students.