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Portage students carry emotional burden in ‘These Shining Lives’

December 30, 2017 GMT

An unexpectedly trying voyage for six Portage High School students will finally reach the stage in “These Shining Lives.”

Their play -- which debuts Jan. 4 – dramatizes the dangerous working conditions for women in the 1920s. They’ve been thinking about the script, based on a true story, since the summer.

“These Shining Lives” was supposed to debut in November. But scheduling conflicts has given a small cast even more time to settle into their roles, director Josh Joles said. What they’ve shown in rehearsals is growth.

“It’s really interesting to see how teenagers understand complex issues like the ones they’re dealing with – workman’s comp, women’s rights – just some really hard-life issues,” said Joles, a 2001 Pardeeville High School graduate, who now lives in Utah.

“I didn’t tell them much. I let them discover what these feelings actually were, and nine times out of 10, they’ve been right on the money.”

“This whole show’s been about using our personal experiences and reflecting them on stage,” said senior Braedon O’Boyle. He plays Tom, the husband of Catherine. O’Boyle’s real-life girlfriend -- senior Annika Hentz -- plays Catherine, the lead plaintiff in a court case against Radium Dial, an Illinois company that exposed the women to radium poisoning.

There’s a scene where Catharine believes she’s dying, only one of several scenes that has challenged both students, they said. “It’s an extremely emotional journey,” said Hentz. “Some of these lines are from real life. I feel it so much, (but) actually living it is hard to imagine.”

“When it gets to the bad (emotions),” O’Boyle said, “you’re thinking about someone you care about dying.” Their actual relationship has helped them to define their roles, he added, particularly in the “ridiculous fights that don’t go anywhere” -- fights common to any relationship.

Hentz said, “I love the intensity of the show -- it drags you through their whole (ordeal).”

Sophomore Aidan Black plays Mr. Reed, the plant supervisor who “evolves through the show” – the most challenging aspect of his role, he said.

“He starts out nice, but as the show goes on he becomes a huge jerk.”

Many of the emotions required exploration of the self, all of these emotions difficult for the students at first, Black said, but as rehearsals went on, “we could really put ourselves in their shoes.”

“You need a fresh mindset every day,” said freshman Meara McEvilly, who plays Frances, one of the workplace women. “As the plot turns dark, it is hard to overcome that.”

Whenever possible, “It’s good to laugh.”

Other than Hentz and O’Boyle, cast members didn’t know each other very well, Black noted. The unfamiliarity made Black nervous at first, but it didn’t last long.

“Now we’re having fun with each other, which has taken the load off the depressing content.”

About the director

Joles is a recent graduate of the professional acting training program at the University of Utah. He drives truck for a living but works in theater -- his passion -- as often as he can.

For the past 10 years, Joles has traveled to Portage to help lead youth theater workshops held in the summers at the Portage Center for the Arts. Portage native Xan Johnson started the workshops in 1991 and is a University of Utah professor and a friend of Joles for the past 30 years.

Joles knew some of the cast members from his work at PCA. “They’re a talented bunch,” he said. Having such a small cast presents obvious challenges – “They really need to be here every night,” he said of their rehearsals – but it also gives “everybody a chance to come closer together.”

‘Where we came from’

“It’s really encouraging to see younger people willing to take these chances and risks,” Joles said of his cast’s dedication to the play. “They’ve done the work.”

“The characters aren’t made up. They’re real people and these are real things they went through,” Joles continued. “When these women start talking about what’s happening to their bodies (as a result of radium poisoning), it’s not an exaggeration. It’s really what happened.

“Being that this happened Illinois, it’s possible that people in this area had relatives who worked for the company, or friends of relatives who worked for it. So I’d say it’s important because it’s a story about where we came from, a story about women and how women’s rights have come about, and about workmans’ rights.”

Thanks to the real Catherine Donohue, there is more employer responsibility for the safety of workers in America, Joles said. The weight of that fact isn’t lost on his cast, all of them understanding the era they’re portraying “really wasn’t that long ago.”

“This is a really tough show,” Joles concluded. “I remember on Day Two of rehearsals, everybody cried.

“I think the biggest thing that will help them (after high school) is having that much more humility – to know that when someone is going through hard times, you don’t have to distance yourself from it, that you can help your neighbor, help a friend, even when it inconveniences you.”