Greenhouse Theater Center opens its 2017-18 season with Sophie Treadwell’s critical play Machinal, which draws loose inspiration from the life of murderess Ruth Snyder to explore the crushing external forces limiting a young woman’s choices in a misogynistic, capitalist society. Directed by Jacob Harvey with movement by Elizabeth Margolius, Machinal resonates with our contemporary world with horrifying clarity.
The Young Woman, Helen Jones, is trapped by both men and machines in her corporate job, where her coworkers operate more like automatons than people. The play depicts scenes from The Young Woman’s life as she enters an unhappy marriage with her boss, has an unwanted child, engages in a briefly joyous but ultimately disappointing affair, and murders her husband in a desperate break for freedom. Written in the expressionist style, the play is a 90-minute gut punch, hitting issues from an emotional, rather than realistic, perspective.
Although nearly a hundred years old, Machinal is still a painfully relevant piece in its treatment of the intersections of misogyny and capitalism. Men talk over women, ignoring their words and actions and insisting that the men know what’s best for them; reproductive choices are snatched away, both from the Young Woman herself and from an anonymous woman in a bar who is pressured into having an abortion; postpartum depression is left untreated; marital rape is condoned; and money and machines win out over human needs in the end. And who could fail to recognize current events in the scene of the Young Woman’s trial, in which the same events are described in polar opposite terms by reporters with differing points of view?
Heather Chrisler leads the cast as The Young Woman, and what a magnificent leader she makes. Christler embodies the everywoman character’s intense emotional states with a powerful stage presence and nuanced acting choices. The rest of the ensemble is strong as well, with each performer taking on a variety of roles with detailed and precise choices.
Set design by Eleanor Kahn manifests the dreary, mechanical world of the play with grey tones and hard edges. Props are minimal, to the detriment of the story. The Young Woman’s gloves, which are essential not only symbolically but as evidence in her trial as well, are only mimed, reducing their impact and memorability as a plot point. Another important prop, a lily given to The Young Woman by her lover, is onstage for its first appearance, but joins the ranks of invisible objects when it’s referenced in later scenes, which is both odd and disconcerting.
Machinal is a powerful, intelligently constructed text that has an unfortunately acute resonance with contemporary life. Greenhouse Theater Center’s production brings this essential text to stark and impactful life, and it is not to be missed.
Location: The Greenhouse Theater Center (Upstairs Main Stage) 2257 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago
Regular run: Friday, August 18 – Sunday, September 24, 2017
Curtain times: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 2:30 pm.
Please note: there will not be a performance on Thursday, August 17.
Tickets: $35. Students: $15. Tickets are currently available at the Greenhouse Theater Center website, in person at the box office or by calling (773) 404-7336. Season subscription packages are also available.
All photos by Evan Hanover.