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Miles Mac production to honour former student

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Radium Girls leads Harlan Billson and Sydney Small, director Carrie Gillis, and assistant director Shelley Lichtman are shown. Miles Macdonell Collegiate will stage the play in December.

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Radium Girls leads Harlan Billson and Sydney Small, director Carrie Gillis, and assistant director Shelley Lichtman are shown. Miles Macdonell Collegiate will stage the play in December. Photo Store

The show will go on as Miles Macdonell Collegiate remembers one of its own.

At its upcoming production of Radium Girls, the school’s theatre program is honouring the memory of former student Abbey Ruchkall, 19, who died suddenly on Aug. 16 after an epileptic seizure. One dollar from every ticket will be donated to the Abbey D Trust Fund to support young people in the arts in Winnipeg, and additional donations will be welcomed.

After getting her start at the East Kildonan school, Ruchkall planned to keep going in the theatre, as she had been accepted into Humber College’s theatre performance program.

"We always like to do something at the play that gives back," director Carrie Gillis said. "It’s a really great cause and we really miss her, so I think it will be really nice to honour her memory."

Gillis said Ruchkall first started as part of the set crew as a Grade 10 student before later taking to the stage, performing leading roles in The Diary of Anne Frank and Harvey. Last year, Ruchkall returned to the school to help co-direct the production of Almost, Maine.

"They respected her in the way that they would respect me, and she was only a year older than them," Gillis said. "We’d be chatting, and I’d forget that just the year prior, she had gone here."

This year’s play, Radium Girls, written by D.W. Gregory, tells the story of young women who worked for the U.S. Radium Corporation in Orange, N.J. creating luminous watches in the 1920s. The factory workers would dip the brushes onto their tongues to create a fine point, but contracted radium poisoning by doing so. The subsequent lawsuits helped set a legal precedent for occupational hazard cases.

Sydney Small will be playing the lead role as Grace Fryer, one of the factory workers. Small was close with Ruchkall, and she hopes to honour the memory of the "bright light in our theatre" with her performance.

"You almost have to connect to a personal experience sometimes to get yourself into the character and connect in those serious moments," the Grade 12 student said. "Not everybody has had a friend who’s died or been very sick themselves, as my character has. For me, it’s different, but it’s a good challenge and it’s helping me grow as an actress.

"For some scenes, I do think of (Abbey). I think of her because she was very inspiring to me."

As for the production itself, Gillis said the school had produced lighter plays in recent years, and the performers were looking for a challenge to take on this year.

"(Students) had been asking if we could produce something with a little more depth that they could dig their teeth into," Gillis said, adding she also wanted to do a period piece after recently producing contemporary-set plays. "I want something the audience can relate to, whether it is a comedy or something more intense."

Grade 12 student Harlan Billson said this is his first play, and he’s tackling the lead role of U.S. Radium president Arthur Roeder, the play’s leading antagonist.

"He’s so much different from my personality, so I’ve spent a lot of time working on my characterization," Billson said, adding he received encouragement from Gillis to audition for the production after taking drama classes in previous school years.

Radium Girls runs from Dec. 2 through 4 at 7 p.m. at Miles Macdonell Collegiate (757 Roch St.). Tickets are $12 for the general public and $8 for MMC students. As part of the performance on Dec. 4, there will be a tribute to Ruchkall.

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