Misery, murder and ‘Machinal’

By Hedy Weiss
Chicago Sun-Times

The Hypocrites’ stunning revival of Sophie Treadwell’s play, Machinal, is the first theatrical event of the new year, and it immediately raises the bar of achievement for the season to come to an exceptionally high level.

The production also should attract much-deserved attention for its director-designer Sean Graney, a young artist who has put his unique imprint on several impressive projects in the past two years and now only confirms his exceptional gifts. And it should place actress Mechelle Moe–who carries the weight of the play, and whose performance is an altogether haunting piece of work–in the brightest of spotlights.

First, a few historical notes. Machinal was written in 1928, and inspired by a sensational New York murder case of the year before. It is the best-known work of that rarest of birds–a female playwright who flourished in America in the early half of the 20th century. Treadwell, who grew up in California, became one of this country’s first accredited female war correspondents during World War I before turning to the theater and penning nearly 40 plays.

Machinal (which featured a young Clark Gable in the original New York cast) was written during the same period that Eugene O’Neill was beginning to be recognized, and it contains some of the same powerful expressionistic probing and psychological insights found in his work. But what Graney and Moe reveal most brilliantly is that Treadwell’s writing also presaged the spare, repetitive rhythms of Samuel Beckett’s work by more than two decades (Waiting for Godot did not arrive until 1953), and it incorporated elements of the same existential despair as well.

In nine stark but fascinating scenes, the play traces the dark, downward spiral–and brief interlude of liberation–of Ruth Snyder (Moe), a young woman who feels trapped by every aspect of her existence. When we first meet her she is living with her mother in a depressing little apartment, and supporting their miserable life with a grinding secretarial job that oppresses her soul to its core and drives her to fits of panic. Making matters worse is that her boss (played with unerring boorishness by Kurt Ehrmann), a controlling corporate type and a misfit to boot, is infatuated with her. He proposes marriage, and though he makes her skin crawl, she accepts, believing it is her only way out.

A grotesque honeymoon scene suggests the grim sexual and emotional prison she has entered, and the birth of a child inspires one of the more horrifying post-partum depression scenes on record. Fast forward a few years and we see the woman accompany a wild girl from her office to a speakeasy. There she meets a handsome young stranger (a nicely understated but sensual performance by Ryan Bollettino). He has has just returned from adventures in Mexico, and he quickly becomes her lover–liberating her in ways she had only dreamed of, though promising no future. For the first time in her life she submits to something that gives her joy.

It is only a matter of time, of course, before she is driven to murder her husband. Her trial is a nightmare of legal jargon, grandstanding and betrayal. She ultimately confesses, is condemned to death in the electric chair, and just when she believes her suffering is about to be over she discovers there is more indignity and submission to be endured even in the final moments before death.

All this is grim, to be sure, though not without strong streaks of mordant humor. And Graney, along with his large, 18-person cast and superb collaborators have created an environment that is so intense, so self-contained and so provocative in its strange poetry and youthful bursts of dry wit that you hang on the story, and on Snyder’s fate, from first minute to last.

The nine scenes are prefaced with intriguing archival film footage pieced together by Michael Corrigan and projected on a wall of hospital screens. Kevin O’Donnell’s eerie original score, played live by cellist Nicole LeGette, wraps the play in a fascinating musical cocoon. And the bravura lighting design of Heather Graff and Rich Petersen, plus the costumes by Alison Siple, and the sound design of Joseph Fosco, add immeasurably to the mood.

But it is Moe, a petite woman with a face that is alternately tensely angular and innocently sweet– and body language that seems capable of shifting on a dime–who will mesmerize you. This is a performance that seamlessly blends high stylization with nerve-deep realism. It leaves you wondering, as Treadwell’s play does, whether you are watching a character who is mentally ill or impossibly healthy in a sick and suffocating world. Small wonder you may leave the theater at once shaken and strangely liberated.