Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal at IU’s Wells-Metz Theatre is a skillfully told grim dark story of a Young Woman, so beaten down by society and the failures of life that her only alternative is to murder her way out. The drama of the nameless Young Woman played by Abby Lee was inspired by the 1928 story of Ruth Snyder. Snyder killed her husband with the aid of her lover Judd Gray. She was tried, convicted and died in the electric chair. Playwright SophieTreadwell covered the trial as a reporter with the New York Herald Tribune.
It’s through the eyes and ears of Abby Lee’s character that that we experience this weirdly expressionist play. In a production where actors play many roles she plays a single part. Scenic designer Jeremy Smith’s basic set is of a maze of muddy black ramps. Taut sets of strings lit by Darrian Brimberry connect and frame the space. It looks a bit like the inside of a harp, but inventive sound designer Tony Stoeri always keep thing on the edge of song.
As Machinal opens, the Young Woman drags herself into an office manned by a staff that seems as mechanical as the machines that they work with. Their actions are staccato and Jared Smith manages to work the phrase “hot dog” into every utterance. The exceptions are the wonderfully self-confident and overbearing boss George H. Jones, Jay C. Hemphill and the flirtatious telephone girl, Ellise Chase.
Lee is clearly beaten down, depressed and not in sync with the office. In a monologue she streams the words of her servitude. Later at home with her mother, Glynnis Kunkel-Ruiz there’s a coldly unsympathetic lack of communication and a battle that seems to have been going on for ever. The Young Woman’s painful to watch wedding night with Hemphill skirts the edges of date rape. Her postpartum depression is fueled in part by Berklea Goings as a too cheerful nurse and Caleb Curtis as an overbearingly superior doctor.
Some years later in one of the most satisfyingly complex scenes of Machinal the slightly reluctant though nicely dressed Young Woman is dragged into a speak easy by the eager Chase. Chase’s too-slick married boyfriend Nathaniel Kohlmeier introduces the Woman to Joshua M. Smith. The Young Woman seems particularly interested in him when she learns that he killed two men in Mexico. The focus shift nicely while Jared Smith as a silently efficient maître d’ works the room. Sex is in the air Reid Henry is wooing a young Connor Starks with Amontillado, and Kaleigh Howland is being talked into an abortion by Felix Merback.
Chase and Kohlmeier depart while Lee and Joshua Smith begin a flirtation and an affair. Although her lover expresses some reservations about their long term success and the scene drags a bit, it’s the first time that the Young Woman genuinely smiles, seems to be having a good time and almost frolics as the two make love. A set of those tightly stretched cords relaxes, but director Nelson has a caution. He calls every episode a prison. This one is The Prison of False Hope.
Buoyed by the possibility of love and appalled by her marriage the Young Woman bashes in the skull of her sleeping husband with a bottle of rocks from a flower that her lover gave her. In the court room scene Felix Merback is her jerky and ineffectual defense lawyer. Nathaniel Kohlmeier is the relentless ly prosecuting attorney. The scene is meant to dramatize the protracted beating that the Young Woman continues to receive from society, but it’s a bit hard on the audience as well.
Director Nelson’s title for the final episode is the ironic Prison of Mercy. Reid Henry appears as an ineffectual priest who walks about intoning what may or may not be scripture. The Young Woman is prepared for execution and it’s the huge shadows of everyone thrown on the back wall that amplify the final scene and electrocution.
Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal directed by James Nelson with scenic design by Jeremy Smith, costumes by Justin Michael Gannaway, lighting by Darrian Brimberry and sound design by Tony Stoeri plays February 23 through March 3rd in IU’s Wells Metz Theatre. I got an early look at the tech’ rehearsal.
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker