There's a line in "Radium Girls" when the characters realize their fate: "They're waiting for us to die."
Do they die peacefully? Or do they continue to fight?
"Radium Girls," D.W. Gregory's play that opens at Longstreet Theatre tonight, is based on a 1920s court case that initiated rights for modern workers. Theatre SC's production will run through Nov. 22.
The plot: A factory worker, Grace Fryer, discovers that U.S. Radium Corporation is poisoning her and her co-workers. The paint they are using on watch dials is contaminated with radiation.
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Health care is a central theme. Who should pay for the resulting illnesses? Is U.S. Radium at fault for the working conditions if it didn't know radium was dangerous before the workers got sick?
"The play does a really good job doing both sides," said Shanga Parker, the play's director. "You can't know until you know that radium was dangerous."
Health care is a hot button issue these days. Just turn on your television to hear the raging and contemptuous dialogue.
"Radium Girls" focuses on the friction between capitalism and growth on one side and the human and natural cost on the other. U.S. Radium wants to protect its profits, not pay increased health benefits.
"As you get on the other side to make money, I think things change," Parker said. "Priorities change. It's a rare individual who will deny themselves an income windfall to protect others.
"We're relying on the government to step in and make regulations. The government isn't in that position."
And if government does step in to make changes, political combat ensues.
"What we try to do in spite of the play is to not paint it as good versus evil," Parker said. "It's sort of human nature when in that position."
Theatre SC first staged "Radium Girls" in 2002, not long after the 9/11 attacks. Seven years later, the play shares a resonance with survivors and first responders of the terrorist attacks.
"I was watching the Michael Moore film 'Sicko' and caught a scene of 9/11 volunteers who were having health problems," Parker said. "They're having respiratory problems and the government isn't doing anything.
"I can't believe that it is happening now. It's the same thing."
Parker, a TV and film actor who directed the play in 2002, said that Gregory doesn't have an underlying message, a call to action.
"One of the things that drew me to the play is she does not take a side," he said. "She tells the story of what happened to these girls.
"I would hope it would lead to people to read."
He suggested "A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn.
Why that title?
"It's the history of people told through the people who built stuff and not people who hired them to build stuff," he said.
Ten actors will play 37 roles. Only USC graduate students Katie Kreuger, who plays Grace, and Daniel Hill, who plays her boss, Mr. Roeder, have single roles.
Parker said the script has been revised a bit.
"I didn't know if I'd do this play again," said Parker, who was asked to direct again by USC faculty. "I'm much more confident in what it is I'm doing out there."
IF YOU GO
WHEN: 8 tonight and Wednesday; 7 and 11 p.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. Nov. 21; and 3 p.m. Nov. 22
WHERE: Longstreet Theatre, 1300 Greene St.
TICKETS: $10 to $16
INFORMATION: (803) 777-2551