By Lucia Mauro
Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 Industrial Era metaphor on dehumanization, Machinal, could easily be presented as a glaring automaton cliché. But in director Sean Graney’s engrossingly immediate production for The Hypocrites at Chicago Dramatists, this Expressionist-style drama inspires a small miracle: the robotic vacancy of these characters swept into a cold assembly-line world serves as a portal into their stunted humanity.
Graney strips down and broadens these iconic figures (the embittered mother, insecure older husband, free-spirited lover/revolutionary, etc.) to lay bare the disturbing fiber of social expectation. A morality tale — with Brechtian overtones and executed in the grotesque timbre of Leonide Massine’s ballet finale in the film, The Red Shoes, or Ruth Page’s Frankie and Johnny – The Hypocrites’ vision of Machinal de-romanticizes romantic love at the same time it blissfully re-defines true love in a world devoid of emotion.
This paradoxical give-and-take makes this production so intense and visceral. Each scene – introduced on grungy panels with Michael Corrigan’s Depression-era film clips that encompass lab rats and starving-eyed children – crackles with melancholic repression, whose hopelessness is enhanced by an understated absurdist humor.
Machinal, inspired by the real 1927 trial of Ruth Snyder – a secretary accused of murdering her husband (a case the playwright covered as a reporter) – unfolds over nine cradle-to-grave-like episodes. A Young Woman works as a stenographer at a nameless urban office and unwittingly attracts the amorous attention of her older boss, whom she reluctantly marries. Poor and forced to live in a one-room flat with her callous mother, the Young Woman can only hope for a secure life with an established man like her boss (with whom she will waste away in a loveless marriage).
Her most prized possession, her well-manicured hands, help to move her into a higher income bracket yet, later, they become her most vicious weapons.
The terror of Machinal lay in its mundane, almost trivial, structure and progression. We witness a less-than-idyllic honeymoon in a nondescript hotel, with the Young Woman flinching at every ego-deflating touch of her Husband. The scene in the hospital following the birth of her daughter dares to show a mother sickened and demoralized by her new role.
Then the Young Woman discovers – in a speakeasy – what she believes to be true, indefinable love with her Lover – a Revolutionary headed for adventures below the Rio Grande. The rest of this dramatic diorama traverses the Young Woman and her Husband’s suffocating detachment, then the Young Woman’s trial for murdering her spouse while he slept. It culminates in her execution.
But, more than seeking justification for the woman’s murder, Machinal examines the little boxes into which conventional society places its infinitely malleable individuals. Those unspoken rituals – from marriage to motherhood – can be either beatific realms of fulfillment or brutal sensory-deprivation cells, depending on the circumstances surrounding those choices (including lack of choice).
The playwright Treadwell surgically dissects the very institutions meant to hold a society together, and the invasive procedure reveals some of the more cancerous aspects of those rigid rules and regulations. This is an image Graney subtly unveils through his exacting and all-encompassing production elements.
His scenic design features rusty revolving fans built into the wall and corroded, disembodied blinds – mesmerizing in their macabre vintage beauty, especially as lit in a greenish patina by Heather Graff and Rich Peterson. Alison Siple’s exaggerated color-coded costumes (particularly the matador-esque reds and blacks of the opening scene) place us in an alternate Techni-Color/sepia universe, where pop-culture images and familiar snippets of an era collide.
But the most haunting design touch is Joseph Fosco’s David Lynch-like sound design: the ever-present drone of machine parts; the maddening rattle of a jackhammer; an indefinable and ineffable clanging – all accentuated by cellist Nicole LeGette’s eerie, unstoppable live playing.
The design effectively merges with the actors – a deeply committed cast capable of releasing the shards of genuine feeling caught in the cogs of their automaton characters. Mechelle Moe as the beleaguered Young Woman delivers perhaps the most searing and soul-felt performance of her career. On the verge of hyperventilating, and struggling to infuse a spirit into her vacant stares, she becomes a distressing tangle of pent-up heaves and fragile child-like wonder – evoked most stingingly in the methodical flattening of her hair.
Kurt Ehrmann, who seems to have found his creative groove with The Hypocrites, tackles the potentially one-dimensional role of the Husband with an immovable yet heartbreaking sympathy. He, too, is a victim of a heartless system. Shawn Yardley also masterfully chips away at the Mother’s damaged self-pride; Halena Kays radiates a devious glow as the wanton Telephone Girl; Amanda Putman demonstrates a swift agility in multiple roles; and Tom Bateman is cuttingly unforgiving as the Lawyer for the Prosecution.