The Academy Players debuted the 2021 Fall Play, Radium Girls, in school performances this week that set a high mark for both excellence and excitement.
It was the school's first live theater performance since February 2020, when the Addams Family played to enthusiastic, sold-out audiences in the Samuel C. Johnson Theater. During the pandemic, the Academy Players led the way with innovation, including a radio play of It's a Wonderful Life and dramatic shows created via Zoom. While those shows were publicized via social media and viewed online by audiences in their homes, the ingenious approaches could not capture the electric atmosphere of opening a show before an audience.
“Live theatre is back at NA and we are thrilled!” said Drama Teacher Caroline Bisi, who directs the Fall Play each year. “The energy one receives on stage from a live audience…that can’t be recreated in any other format. Theatre should be immersive, emotional, and be about human connection. That’s why we do what we do."
Radium Girls, which featured performances and backstage support from 60 middle and upper school students, is based upon the true story of young women who worked in the factories during the 1920s, painting watch dials with luminous paint. The glow in the paint was created by radium, the radioactive chemical element that was viewed at the time not only as safe, but as a miracle cure, akin to vitamins. Drinks and skin creams were marketed as infused with radium--a sales pitch that had those items flying off the shelves.
As the “dial girls" fall ill with bone-wasting illnesses and tumors, the factory owners are in denial about the source of the problem and refuse to pay compensation. The play chronicles the efforts of the factory workers to band together in the fight for public acknowledgement of the source of their fatal illnesses and compensatory damages.
The play's theme and plot resonated in the school's Year of Togetherness, said Ms. Bisi. "These five dial girls stood together, through emotional and physical pain, to fight for what is right."
The show calls upon those in starring roles to convincingly display a range of extreme emotions, and they did so with flourish, even though they wore masks throughout the performance for safety reasons.
The play opens in a mood of 1920s high spirits, as the dial girls gossip on the floor, delighting in their well-paying jobs, and the factory owners revel in their prosperity and cutting-edge products. By the end of the play, the girls are a study in rage and pain, as their illnesses slowly debilitate them, and the factory owners wrestle with defensiveness and a growing sense of guilt.
Abigail Littlejohn '25 and Addie Peterson '25 have starring roles as Grace Fryer and Kathryn Schaub, two dial girls who lead the fight for justice. Kadyn Johnson-Smith '23 plays the company man who struggles to deny his own culpability in the face of mounting evidence. Avery Britt '22 plays Katherine Wiley, a crusading lawyer who fortifies the dial girls for the legal battle.
The show was performed during activity bells for Upper and Middle School audiences and for family members of the cast on Friday, Oct. 22.
“I’m grateful that our NA community has the chance to come together again in this beautiful way," Ms. Bisi said. “It’s a joyful, fulfilling feeling.”