The founders of Shakesperience Productions, Emily Mattina, and her husband, Jeff Lapham, have tackled the edgy and historically significant subject of Radium Girls for their latest play.

                                                 By John Murray

   Shakesperience Productions is tackling a tough subject this week when they perform “Radium Girls” at their studio on Bank Street in downtown Waterbury. One hundred years ago three clock and watch factories in the United States paid young women to paint radium on watches so time would glow in the dark. Radium, a natural radioactive element, was thought to possess magic healing powers and was being prescribed by doctors all across the country for ailments ranging from impotence, to arthritis, to senility.

   The side affects of radium were unknown at the time when young women were painting radium dials at the Waterbury Clock Company, but the consequences were devastating and many of the women died tragic and painful deaths. A plant in New Jersey drew tabloid coverage from NYC, but in Waterbury the local media was silent – until Ann Quigley wrote an astonishing story for the Waterbury Observer in 1999 called After Glow (it can be found at

   Five or six years ago a student came into to talk with Emily Mattina, the artistic director at Shakesperience, and brought with her the script of Radium Girls, a play by D.W. Gregory. She suggested Mattina look over the script.

   “I read it and was fascinated on many levels,” Mattina said. “ I gave it to my mom (MaryJane Incorvia Mattina who was named State Chemist by former Governor Jodi Rell) to read, and she encouraged me to do the play.”

   The subject of the Radium Girls is still a sensitive subject in Waterbury as several high profile city leaders lost their mothers to the side affects of the radium, including Jaci Carroll, and former police chief Bill Lamb. There have been attempts to get the Timexpo Museum in Waterbury to acknowledge the tragedy, but the radium painting happened before Timex purchased the Waterbury Clock Company, and Timex has resisted associating itself with debacle.

The devastating affect of licking a paint brush with radium paint killed dozens of women.

    The play Radium Girls is set in Orange New Jersey, and there is only one direct reference to Waterbury in the script. “We’re not ignoring Waterbury,” Mattina said. “We’re doing the play and it’s set in New Jersey. There is a lot about wealthy factory owners, the media and the young girls.”

   There are so many plays and scripts to choose from, why is Shakesperience tackling Radium Girls?

   “This is a play about confronting the best and worst that people have to offer,” Mattina said. “This is about greed and ambition and it’s what Shakespeare wrote about all the time. And most importantly the girls finally get a chance to speak.”

   After each performance there will be panel discussions that Mattina and her husband, Jeffrey Lapham, the executive director of Shakesperience, hope will add to the oral history of the radium girls of Waterbury.

   It takes courage for a small group of actors to reach their arms out wide and embrace a horrible story that has been suppressed in Waterbury for almost a century. Well done Shakesperience. William would be very proud.


(Radium Girls will by performed by Shakesperience Productions in their studio at 117 Bank Street in downtown Waterbury on October 25th through October 28th. Seating is limited. Call 203-754-2531 to order your tickets)