The name “Raymond Berry” had been familiar to Dena Transeau all her life. Her parents mentioned her great-grandfather frequently to both Transeau and her sister, HanaLyn Colvin. Both girls vaguely resembled the lawyer, with wide-set cheekbones and rounded chins. But she never knew his legacy, until an author named Kate Moore emailed Colvin in 2016.
“I believe you might be a descendant of Raymond Berry,” Moore wrote. The attorney, who died in 1971, was a significant figure in Moore’s book, “The Radium Girls,” about factory workers in the early 20th century. As the United States entered World War I, hundreds of women went to work in bright-lit factories where they painted watches and military dials with radium — the new element discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie. What they didn’t know was that the paint was slowly killing them. After dozens of girls sickened and died from exposure to the radioactive chemical, Berry became an aberration among his colleagues by agreeing to take their case.
“We talked to our parents and they were like, ‘Oh yeah, we told you that,’” Transeau said, laughing. “And we were like, ‘No, I don’t think you did.’”
The gruesome story of the radium girls is laid out, painstakingly, in Moore’s nearly 500-page book. But their case had been discovered nearly 20 years earlier by another writer — the playwright D.W. Gregory — who was inspired to write a play based on the account.
“Radium Girls” started its life in 2000 at the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey (now called the Writers Theatre, Gregory said) and recently became one of the 10 most-produced plays among U.S. high schools. Transeau, an amateur actor based in Bethesda, discovered the production when she was researching her great-grandfather online.
“So, I had the play in my mind — like, ‘Oh, it would be great to be involved in a production sometime,” she said. Then, last year, she learned that the Maryland Ensemble Theatre was planning to stage the show in 2019.
At the time, Transeau didn’t have a running car — she ended up having to buy a new one — so she couldn’t attend auditions for the MET’s main season. But her sister contacted Doug Grove, the theater’s production manager, and told him they were the great-granddaughters of Raymond Berry.
“She was like, ‘We want to audition for the show,’” Transeau said. They didn’t hear back. But in a bizarre twist of fate, Transeau got married at the theater, in mid-September, after Hurricane Florence swept through the Outer Banks and interrupted her plans for a beachside ceremony. After the wedding, she and Colvin learned that the casting for “Radium Girls” was still being finalized. On the second night of callbacks for the play, they both drove to Frederick and auditioned.
“I couldn’t cast both sisters,” director Gerard Stropnicky explained regretfully. But he did cast Transeau as Irene, a factory worker who dies from radium exposure. She actually plays several parts in the production, an ensemble piece with more than 25 characters designed to be spread across nine or 10 different actors. Another role she plays is Katherine Wiley, the executive director of the New Jersey Consumer’s League.
“What’s interesting is that the Raymond Berry in this play, when we first meet him, is kind of clumsy, and he’s kind of a terrible lawyer,” Stropnicky said. “But Ms. Wiley, who Dena plays, builds him into becoming the lawyer who wins the case by the end of the second act.”
It’s not easy. In the play — as in real life — Wiley was quick to realize the importance of the case and the powerful public sympathy it could invoke. The male staff in laboratories at the radium factories were issued lead aprons and handled the material with ivory-tipped tongs. Dial painters, on the other hand — almost exclusively women — were explicitly told to wet their paint brushes between their lips to create a fine point. With each new brushstroke, the girls swallowed trace amounts of radium. Over time, it wreaked havoc on their bodies.
Molly Maggia, a painter at the United States Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey, died after her jawbone literally rotted from the inside out. Her dentist finally removed it by gently lifting it from her skull. Dozens of other radium girls suffered the same oral rot, or watched in horror as their bones crumpled beneath them. In other cases, workers developed massive tumors across their bodies. But holding the companies liable was a challenge, especially in New Jersey, where workers faced a two-year statute of limitations for claims. Many of the girls had worked at U.S. Radium for years before their illnesses developed.
In the play, Wiley is the first to tell Grace Fryer, another painter dying of radium poisoning, that she’d help the girls with their case. Wiley is the one who leaks the story to the press, stoking widespread public outrage over the workers’ treatment. And it’s Wiley who finds a lawyer — Berry — willing to work on the case without immediate payment. Berry later convinces the court that the statute of limitations should only apply after the cause of illness is identified, which took years in the case of the New Jersey Radium Girls.
“It kind of makes my hair stand on end,” Stropnicky said, looking at Transeau. “When I watch you, carrying that DNA, making the character that is your great-grandfather the full success that he becomes.”
Writing and directing the play also come with their own set of challenges. Gregory, who lives in Silver Spring, actually visited the Frederick cast early on in rehearsals to answer some of their questions about the production. One of the biggest challenges, she said, is that the case isn’t totally black and white. It’s true that the leaders of U.S. Radium had at least some awareness that the element was dangerous. Marie Curie herself was severely burned while handling radium in the lab (the Nobel Prize-winning physicist later died from aplastic anemia, a condition linked to her near-constant exposure to radioactive materials).
But, importantly, small doses of uranium weren’t believed to be dangerous. The element was frequently marketed as a miracle new health product by radium companies and eager entrepreneurs. In “Radium Girls,” Gregory referenced a real-life product called Radithor, marketed as a “health tonic” in the 1920s. The drink — radium dissolved in distilled water — was fairly successful until it killed a man in 1932. Others advertised radium butter, radium face cream, even radium hair dye. Studies on the dangers were largely squashed or ignored.
“You have to remember, this is the same element that’s being used to treat cancer,” Gregory said. “How could something that cures cancer also kill people?” It’s a perspective that informed her depiction of Arthur Roeder, the president of U.S Radium. Technically, Roeder is the villain of the play — he’s the corporate executive who buries a report on the dangers of radium and denies responsibility for the deaths of his workers. But as Gregory researched the case at the Library of Congress, she realized that Roeder genuinely didn’t realize the dangers of the paint. At least, not until it was too late. And when he did learn the factory was to blame, he looked for a second opinion that would absolve him of guilt.
“You have to write the character as someone who’s on that downward journey,” Gregory said. “Based on the information I came across, Roeder was a salesman. He was described as a very affable, friendly fellow. He’s not some cardboard villain — he’s a guy who couldn’t let go of these cherished beliefs in the power of radium. And in looking for the answers he wants, he goes down this rabbit hole.”
It also answered a question that Gregory had asked herself since she first learned about the Radium Girls. “How could something like that ever happen?” But as she wrote the play, the question shifted. “Why does this keep happening?” Gregory started to wonder. Countless products, from tobacco to OxyContin, have been marketed as miracle cures despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Corporations, from U.S. Radium to Purdue Pharma, have actively embellished data to convince doctors to prescribe their products.
It’s one of a “thousand reasons,” Stropnicky said, that “Radium Girls” is still relevant today.
“Feminism is another,” he said. “But we still live in a world that is rife with confidentiality agreements, with statutes of limitations, with not listening to women. And with the misuse of science and corporations stomping on people’s health for the purpose of profit. I think these are of this moment as they were in 1925.”
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters