These Shining Lives-The Devil’s Light
Boy, do these kids care. Seeing These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich today at Howard Community College (presented with the Arts Collective) made Grandma old-lady nostalgic for her college theater days-the hairspray, the cast list, the smell of pancake makeup in the dressing rooms, the palpable patina of nervous energy that glistens on every line. I wish I could remember more clearly what it’s like to care like that, to be so fragile, to invest that much in THE SHOW. Now, obviously, you can’t review an all student production the same as you would even a semi-professional theater – I believe that is what is known in current slang terms as “a dick move”. They’re still learning. That’s the whole point. But the children are our future, y’all. When we’re all fumbling around for our Depends in a few months, these are the folks that’ll be movin’ us on up. So, in the immortal words of Sister Act II: You better wake up and pay attention. After being seated on the intimate stage (and I do mean intimate – I was sitting what seemed like fractions of a centimeter from the playing space) we time travel to 1921 where we meet Catherine (a bright-eyed-bushy-tailed Natalie Collins). She’s a regular Sally looking to scare up a little more cabbage for her family so, much to the bemusement of her husband, Tom (Ike De La Cruz), she decides to get a job at the local watch factory painting faces on the dials. On her first day we go with her as she meets three other career gals on the assembly line and, though these characters are based on real people, they fall neatly into the archetypical categories that you usually find in such stories – there’s Charlotte, the big-mouthed broad (Brenna Horner), Frances, the cross-wearing prude (Elizabeth Ung) and Pearl, the funny one (Ashley Zangla). The women are encouraged to continuously lick their paint brushes like particularly dull-minded cats before they dip them into the radium compound that makes the watches light up. Pretty soon the girls realize that the watches ain’t the only things glowing in the dark and, as we move into the second act, start to come down with the stuff of nightmares (dying jaw tissue, liquifying bones) that are the symptoms of radium poisoning. If there was any justice in the world, they’d all wind up with superpowers but, life being what it is, there isn’t. Catherine takes on US Radium and Radium Dial on behalf of herself and her friends in a pre-Brockovitch case and eventually wins a settlement that turns into quite the cold victory as she dies only 21 days later. In general, the girls outshine (sorry, that’s the last one) the boys on this one. De La Cruz struggles in his thankless role of Tom, the long suffering husband, and the romantic scenes seem stilted. Collins, however, glows (I lied) as Catherine-she carries most of the play and does a pretty good job, too, especially in some emotional scenes towards the end. Her main strength as an actor is in her relationship to her body (her bio says she’s a dancer) and her careful carriage makes the last act almost disturbingly believable as Catherine’s body begins to shut down. As for Brenna Horner, well, we gotta It Girl in the making here. Charismatic and cutting by turns, Horner’s emotive face (could have used two-thirds less makeup) will capture your eyeballs like a modern Clara Bow. If this was Vegas, though, I’d be putting my money on Ashley Zangla. I loved, loved, LOVED her Pearl – if this one doesn’t turn pro so help me I’ll eat my hat. Flawless timing. I’m watchin’ ya, girl. Rounding out the big four was Elizabeth Ung with her unusual voice holding steady in the less flashy role of pearl-clutching Frances. Director Brandon McCoy does some pretty tricky stuff with the challenge of staging in the round that never feels clunky or forced. He also avoids the “too much air” syndrome that many college productions suffer from-he keeps things trotting along at an appreciated fast clip. As is usual with this type of thing, the production staff is comprised of mostly professionals providing a net for the student actors. Heidi L. Castle-Smith’s set is as pretty as they come (if a bit literal) with aged clock faces painted onto the floor, costumes by Celestine Ranney-Howes are flapper era gorge, and Lighting Designer Terry Cobb makes good use of some nifty gobo effects. Sound Design and Original Composition by Patrick Calhoun (with Student Sound Design Assistant Liam Connor) is a particularly cool stand out – the ticking that starts out as cheerful eventually grows somber as we realize we’re hearing a death watch.
Bottom Line: It’s a student show, all right, but these kids are all in. Some of us could use a breath of this kind of fresh air. Nicely done, kittens.
Running at HCC’s Theatre Department and Arts Collective through November 24th
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