What would drive a woman to murder her husband? Why would an individual murder at all? In what world can we almost understand the motive, and perhaps even feel some sympathy for the murderer?
Sophie Treadwell explores these questions and more in her 1928 expressionist drama Machinal, and boldly asks the audience to understand the woman’s journey that brings her to the electric chair.
Treadwell’s Machinal is inspired by the story of Ruth Snyder, a housewife in Queens, New York who murdered her husband, Albert Snyder, with the help of her lover, Henry Judd Gray. She was executed in the electric chair on January 12, 1928, which also marks the first execution of a woman at Sing Sing Prison since 1899. Her lover’s execution followed immediately after.
Sophie Treadwell, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, was present at Snyder’s trial and eight months following, Machinal hit Broadway.
Machinal at Greenhouse Theater Center
Harvey’s production begins in an office, with the ensemble gossiping about the relationship between Helen (Heather Chrisler) and her boss, George Jones (Sean Gallagher). As Helen enters, the audience can see the pure discomfort she feels at the mere mention of George’s feelings for her, and the conflict begins to grow. Driven by a need to care for her mother (Carin Silkaitis), Helen marries a man she does not love, and over the course of the play is forced to deal with consequences of that match.
Seeing as Treadwell’s leading lady, Helen (Heather Chrisler), is based on Ruth Snyder, audiences come into the theater knowing the ending – there is a death by the electrocution after the woman kills her husband. However, much as Harvey explains in his director’s note, “It is more about how she got there than what she did,” and through that lens, Treadwell’s story begins to become a fascinating account of that which could make a woman – or any individual – break under an inescapable pressure and desire for escape.
Helmed by Harvey, the design team does an excellent job at portraying the intense pressure placed upon Helen from the very moment that the audience enters the theater. Utilizing the intimate space of one of Greenhouse’s lab spaces, the audience is placed on three sides of the stage in a thrust setting. As the patrons walk in, they are met with fog released from a smoke machine on the far corner, creating a hazy feeling surrounding the set piece that sits at the center of the room – an electric chair.
Set Designer Eleanor Kahn and Lighting Designer Eric Watkins collaborate to elicit a heavy and unsettling feeling from the dreary chair in the middle of the room to the only light coming from the small lightbulbs that create a square room around the chair. When combined with the close proximity to the stage in the smaller lab space, the team creates a sense of no escape, which is deeply effective for a story that is about to unfold about a woman who cannot escape the confines of her life.
While Machinal features dozens of characters, Harvey chose to cast an ensemble of ten, with Chrisler as Helen being the only performer to play one role. The choice is an effective one, and helps emphasize the confusion surrounding Helen’s life.
In addition, the double casting allows for some intriguing connections to take form in the story. For example, Sean Gallagher plays both Helen’s husband, George, as well as the prosecutor in her trial. Both individuals responsible for dragging her down in one way or another are embodied in one individual – whether he is sentencing her to her death, or adding to a loveless marriage.
Leading Lady's Honest Portrayal
Chrisler’s Helen is absolutely heartbreaking, and the actress’ convincing choices for this troubled woman makes for some difficult moments to watch unfold – especially when her stress starts to bubble over into an unmanageable level.
One moment in particular is when Chrisler tries to explain to her mother why she feels conflicted about marrying George. While he can support both her and her mother, she does not love him, and the thought of his touch makes her react physically. As she becomes amped up and her frustration increases, Chrisler’s movements become sharper, and her tempo quickens. Chrisler’s character starts to look as if she is glitching, creating a deeply painful and worrying scene on stage.
This level of accuracy could not have been easy to master, and the ending result makes for a complicated view towards Helen’s crime. What would drive a woman to murder her husband? Treadwell certainly asks her audience to consider all sides to the story.
Honest and intriguing, Machinal is a story that will stick with you for days.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of this appears in Theater in Chicago.
Through September 24, 2017
Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 2:30pm
Run Time: 95 minutes, no intermission.
Greenhouse Theater Center
2257 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60614
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.