by Jeff Rossen
Gay Chicago Magazine
Love makes us do strange things. The absence of love can make us do things even more desperate, like partnering with a person who we don’t love, maybe even don’t like all that much, just to escape being alone. It’s not a case of confusing the state of being in love with simply being in love with being in love; it’s being so sure that you’ll never find true love that you’re willing to settle for something else. Something less. Someone who at least loves you, even though the touch of his hand makes your skin crawl.
That’s what Helen does when her boss proposes marriage to his office steno. With an overbearing yet dependent mother to support, a woman who’s told Helen all her life how worthless she is, Helen sees George Jones’ position and bank account as a way to escape at least one suffocating existence, even if it means entering another one.
In Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 tragedy, it’s hard to tell whether Helen is merely overwhelmed by her life or has had her mind shattered by it. And when she makes the most horrific of choices to alter her future when she finds that she does indeed have the capacity to love in return, that question cloaks her like a death shroud. And it does so with hypnotic intensity in Mechelle Moe’s soul-lacerating and ravenous performance as Helen. No doubt about it: This is the performance of the season. Yes, we’ve seen actors in habit their characters with intensity before, but Moe peels back the flesh as she exposes Helen’s every prick of fear, twinge of hate, chill of despair. It is a painful, exhilarating, anguishing and mesmerizing work of passion at the core of a fiercely produced and impressively gritty triumph.
Moe is guided through Helen’s torment by the quirky eyes and ears, and confident hand of director Sean Graney, who sets the pitch so high at first that one is afraid there will be nowhere to go from that height. But with Moe in the center of a crisp and adaptable ensemble (with especially solid and creepy power coming from Kurt Ehrmann as Jones) that is willing and, more importantly, able to bring Graney’s stylized vision to life, the Hypocrites’ Machinal (the title being a word devised by Treadwell to represent how Helen has been deadened, squeezed, crushed by the machine-like quality of life surrounding her) begins with as a fevered cacophony and stays there throughout its two hours, resting only slightly when Helen meets a man who will open her eyes to the possibilities she’s been blind to.
Joseph Fosco’s impeccable sound design blends recorded sounds with live effects, and Kevin O’Donnel’s original music (performed live by cellist Nicole LeGette) adds an compelling atmosphere. The stark setting conceived by Graney is properly dinged by Heather Graff and Rich Peterson’s finely focused lighting, while Alison Simpson’s black-and-white-and-red costumes (with the exception of Helen’s dark blue dress) complement the visual style. Each of the drama’s nine segments are introduced and segued between by a sometimes disturbing, sometimes humorous but always fascinating film sequence devised by Michael Corrigan.
Machinal may be 75 years old, but it is as timely and disquieting as any modern work. Maybe even more so; things haven’t really changed much, have they? (* * * *)