Machinal – A timely, riveting drama

By Catey Sullivan (published January 13, 2003)
Liberty Suburban Chicago Newspapers

In Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, the audience doesn’t see the mental snap that catapults the heroine into a state of absolute isolation. Such a scene isn’t necessary .The tension throughout the play crackles with the convulsive intensity of live wires in water.

Treadwell’s play is loosely based on the 1927 execution by electrocution of suburban housewife Ruth Snyder, and the events that led to her becoming the first woman to die in the electric chair in this country. From the first violent twitch in this drama, it’s starkly apparent that the end will come with ashes. The world on this stage is a bleak one, and one that is difficult to look away from in a riveting production directed by Sean Graney for the Hypocrites theater company.

Like an execution, Machinal offers no visible redemption. With former Gov. George Ryan’s blanket pardon of death row inmates on Saturday, Machinal takes on an intense, uncanny resonance. Lives are not spared in Machinal, only crushed, thoughtlessly and inevitably. Treadwell’s depiction of the world is pitiless and harsh: People are born alone, they die alone and they are profoundly alone most of the time in between. For the modern woman of the patriarchal, post-industrial era Treadwell paints in Machinal, loneliness is cruelly compounded by suffocating oppression. It would be comforting to think of Treadwell’s piece strictly as a cautionary tale or an allegory, but that’s not entirely possible. There are too many real-life examples people who fall through the cracks and into an abyss where they fester until they rupture with rage.

Written in 1929, Machinal is expressionistic rather than strictly realistic. If it was a painting, it would pop with rough textures and sharp angles made from jabbing, jagged brush strokes. Graney has instilled the play with an aptly nightmarish quality – everything from a trio of ringing telephones to a pair of red socks seems enveloped by hazy, surreal malignancy. Events unfold in nine uneasy episodes that show the stifling life of a Young Woman (Mechelle Moe).

In “To Business”, she’s in an office where co-workers speak in clipped, repetitive fragments and the talk is uniformly banal, petty and wounding. “At Home”, she cares for a corrosively embittered mother. Desperate for some form of escape, the Young Woman eventually marries her boss (Kurt Ehrmann), although she finds him repulsive (“The Honeymoon”). She has a baby (“Maternal”) that she doesn’t want, and in “Intimate,” the drama’s solitary, salving scene – takes on a lover. The role of the Young Woman is extremely strenuous, and Moe goes full throttle with it, giving an exhausting performance in which despair, alienation and confusion seem to howl from every pore in her body.

The scenes are masterfully punctuated by the work of filmmaker Michael Corrigan, whose video unspools on screens in a spooky, flickering parade. Corrigan’s images are of children standing alone; conveyor belts processing milk cartons are stacked to infinity and larva writhing in an eyeless mass. There are tumbling ocean waves, white noise and television static; people in blindfolds and people in nooses. All of these disparate, grainy black-and-white scenes heighten the sense of a world that is cold, compassionless, vast and dangerous. The video and the live action benefit from Joe Fosco’s eerie sound design and a live cellist (Nicole LeGette), who unreels a muted strand of original music (Kevin O’Donnel) throughout the drama.

Machinal begins with the whir and ring of telephones, adding machines and typewriters. It ends with an image of a far more lethal piece of machinery, the electric chair. But it would be a mistake to classify Machinal as an anti- death penalty screed or a scathing commentary on the oppression of women. It is an acutely drawn map of the links between grinding conformity, alienation, still-born dreams and desperation.