Stunning Restoration

by Jack Helbig
Chicago Reader

“…One of Chicago’s most talented [directors] is Sean Graney, who has an uncanny ability to dust off shows considered daring a generation or two ago and make them seem shocking and new again. Last season his lively, funny version of Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 absurdist drama Rhinoceros made me realize there’s more to this play than the rather obvious comic allegory. And Graney’s production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding gave me a new appreciation for the emotional radicalism of this playwright’s opaque dreamscapes.”

“Tackling Sophie Treadwell’s expressionist drama Machinal for The Hypocrites, Graney once again proves equal to the task of lifelike embalming. Together with an army of collaborators – including filmmaker Michael Corrigan, composer Kevin O’Donnell, sound designer Joseph Fosco, and cello player Nicole LeGett – he’s done a fabulous job of making the play seem as relevant today as when it opened on Broadway 75 years ago. And that’s saying a lot, because even three generations ago theater was more alive than it is today. It seems remarkable now that such an experimental work could have been produced on America’s most visible theatrical street at all: each of the play’s nine discreet scenes has a different tone, and the language and story are intentionally fragmented.”

“In this protofeminist, protoexistential work, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage turns to murder to escape. Combining the themes of the treatment of women in American culture and the loss of individuality in an increasingly mechanized society, Treadwell blends the techniques of German expressionism and American naturalism in the style of her playwriting contemporaries, especially Eugene O’Neill in Strange Interlude and Elmer Rice in The Adding Machine. And Treadwell’s arguments against capital punishment hit hard at a time when execution-happy conservatives are still pushing to control the judicial system…”

“…The milieu of the play – lower-middle-class America in the 1920’s – is familiar. And it’s one mark of Graney’s brilliance as a director that he uses our knowledge of the setting to full advantage. We’ve seen the dreary world of Treadwell’s protagonist before: the nine-to-five prison of clerical work, the bare apartment with paper-thin walls, the toxic relationships based more on need than love. Acting as set designer as well as director, Graney implies even more with the addition of a prop or two, sometimes intentionally anachronistic. The tiny beat-up television that sits in the middle of a rickety kitchen tells us all we need to know about our heroine’s restricted worldview and nearly empty bank account. Corrigan’s montages of images from the 20s and 30s intercut with more contemporary shots in factories and along the Chicago lakefront serve a similar purpose, providing historical context and, in some cases, the emotional tone missing from Treadwell’s intentionally spare script.”

“In this production, as in Graney’s other stagings, his greatest asset is the ability to coax first-rate performances from [his] cast. Those who have seen Mechelle Moe’s fine…work in past Hypocrites shows will not be prepared for the intense, multilayered performance she delivers as the young woman. From the moment she enters – a drooping, beaten-down office drudge – she’s utterly fascinating. Later, after she’s facedone setback after another – dull marriage, faithless lover, kangaroo-court trial – she rises up, wronged by the world and angry. Moe’s performance in the final scene is one of the most riveting I’ve seen this season.”

“In fact Graney’s tight, disciplined ensemble adeptly negotiates every line of Treadwell’s poetic dialogue and all the twists in her sometimes difficult script. Machinal is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, coolly distant and violently intense. These actors can field everything Treadwell can throw at them…”