What drives anyone — but especially a woman — to commit murder? That is the question that beats in the dark heart of “Machinal,” the 1928 play by Sophie Treadwell that was in many ways far ahead of its time in both style and substance, and is now receiving an altogether remarkable revival at the Greenhouse Theater Center.
‘MACHINAL’ Highly recommended When: Through Sept. 24 Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Tickets: $35 Info: www.greenhousetheater.org Run time: 1 hour an 40 minutes, with no intermission
Treadwell, a prolific playwright, journalist (for the New York Herald Tribune), and fervent suffragette, loosely based her play on the notorious case of Ruth Snyder, who, along with her lover, was sentenced to death by electrocution for the murder of her husband. But this is no documentary; it is a passion play. And if you read about Treadwell you will understand that in many ways she was writing a “there but for the grace of God go I” sort of story.
Director Jacob Harvey and movement director Elizabeth Margolius, along with their exceptional team of designers, have devised a painfully vivid yet minimalist production in which Treadwell’s dialogue — a mix of stark modernism and fiery poetry — create their own stunning music. And in the central role of Helen, the “Young Woman,” Heather Chrisler gives one of those soul-shattering, exposed-nerves performances that takes your breath away from the moment she appears onstage. The actress’ searing take on the role requires total vulnerability wedded to total abandon. It is only confirmed in her rendering of a panic-stricken interior monologue with Beckett-like overtones in which she explains the pressure she feels to marry a man she does not love and finds wholly repellent. Chrisler’s performance (along with that of Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel in Steep Theatre’s “Lela & Co.”) is one of the season’s two most riveting turns by this city’s actresses.
“Machinal” is set in New York, where the Young Woman lives with her passive-aggressive, financially dependent mother (expertly portrayed by Carin Silkaitis), whose own husband probably left her in the lurch. She works as a stenographer in a company where her boss (Sean Gallagher, ideally officious and smugly repellent), clearly has designs on her, and where her colleagues sense his interest. She fears she might lose her all-important job should she deny him, but the very thought of being with him makes her feel suffocated.
When she confides in her mother (in a scene that bears echoes of “Spring Awakening”), she gets no support, and rationalizing that “every woman must marry” (if for no other reason than financial security), she relents, and submits to what she knows will be a wholly loveless marriage. Along the way she gives birth to a daughter who she also cannot love.
Fast forward seven years or so, and while out with friends at a bar she encounters the man who will become her Lover (Cody Proctor, ideal as a jaded, worldly, enigmatic bounder in the role played by Clark Gable when “Machinal” debuted on Broadway). The chemistry between the two is instantaneous and intense, and after talking of his exploits in Mexico where, he explains, he killed two men in order to gain his “freedom,” they head off to a hotel room. There, for the first time in her life, the woman experiences true freedom, control and what feels like love. Yet in a way she has never been more controlled, for now she has become a slave to a passion that will not last, and that will lead to her death.
Serving as something of a Greek chorus in this American tragedy are a group of actors who, along with Silkaitis and Gallagher, include Maddie DePorter, Maddie Burke,Sarah Rachel Schol, Scott Shimizu,Paul Michael Thomson and Jonah Winston (in a mightily impressive turn as a Roman Catholic priest). Their uniformly superb command of stylized movement and syncopated dialogue is exceptional.
Yet in the end it is Chrisler’s astonishing performance that drives the emotionally turbulent “mechanics” of this play. Pale and quietly beautiful, you can feel the shifts in her breathing from one moment to the next as she summons up her character’s anguish (as it turns to rebellion), her hope (as it ends in betrayal), and her most fleeting experience of happiness (as it turns to dust). Yes, she commits murder, but only after being a victim for most of her short, emotionally trapped life.