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Freeport Theater Actors Are Reenacting A Piece Of Illinois History

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The two actors developed an emotional connection to the story.

A Freeport theater is bringing a story based on the lives of real-life factory girls from Ottawa, Illinois to audiences this fall. The story that is both tragic and inspiring.

The 1920s factory workers were later called the "Radium Girls." While working for the Radium Dial Company of Illinois, they were poisoned by ingesting radium from luminous paint. They used their lips to sharpen the tip of the paint brushes — a technique called "lip pointing" and the brushes were used to paint watches with glowing dials.

Suzanne Wiegert will portray Francis O’Connell in the Winneshiek Theater’s play These Shining Lives. O’Connell is one of the main characters in the story.

Wiegert has worked in theater for almost 30 years. She’s done a variety of musicals and plays.

“This one is most certainly different because it is based on truth and facts,” Wiegert explained.” “And I think this is probably one of the more important pieces that I've worked on. And it gets me a little misty every time.”

She said she didn’t know about this Ottawa history until she saw the play a while ago at the theater. She did a Google search to learn more and ultimately found the audio book “Radium Girls” by Kate Moore. Wiegert said when the production came back around this time, she knew she needed to be a part of it.

“There's just something so significant about the story of these women's struggles,” she said, “and how empowering it is that these women went through such devastating events, and, you know, their health deteriorated from a job that was so important to them.”

Wiegert said she feels lucky to tell the story of how these girls fought back against something that ultimately took their lives.

Kaya Teasdale plays Catherine Donohue. Donohue died at the age of 35 from the poisoning but before her tragic death, she won court cases against the dial company.

This is Teasdale’s 10th year acting. She said the historical factor of the story and the locality piqued her interest. She auditioned for the play two years ago, but the pandemic put that on hold. She said auditioning for the part this time gave her a deeper knowledge.

“After that I was much more determined to at least be a part of the production,” she added. “Whether I was a lead or just something that, you know, behind the scenes. I was a lot more determined because this felt like something I almost had to do.”

Wiegert described the experience that these girls went through as gut-wrenching and explained how the radium exposure impacted them.

“Over time, their feet started to hurt. And their bones could be seen through their skin glowing at night. And they didn't know, and they were told, in fact that this was good for them -- that it's okay to ingest it.”

Not only did the girls ingest it, but they also started putting it on their nails and other body parts for a glowing effect.

Wiegert called them the walking dead because of how they slowly started to decay over time.

Teasdale said this piece of history it is important because it sparked a match that would help other workers.

“It is actually said, within our script, and many other articles, if you were to look it up,” she said, “this specific court case that Catherine sued, was almost the very first stepping stone to help workplace awareness in order to actually now hold companies accountable for their workers.”

The court case helped put a spotlight on the occupational disease labor law in Illinois. This law ensures that an employee is compensated by the employer if the worker develops an ailment caused by work conditions.

Wiegert said the Radium Girls is a story that lets people, especially women, know that it’s OK for them to stand up for themselves and to continue to fight for their rights.

“For not only women's rights, but also workplace safety,” Wiegert added. “Because they just didn't know, they weren't told, in fact, they were lied to.”

These Shining Lives performances take place Sept. 24 and 25 and again Oct. 1 and 2. Ticket information can be found at the Winneshiek Theater’s website. Tickets can also be purchased at the theater’s box office, 228 W. Clark St.

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.
Yvonne covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This could include how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities. Boose is a recent graduate of the Illinois Media School and returns to journalism after a career in the corporate world.