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'Machinal': A Woman Worn Away To Madness

By Tricia Olszewski
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 24, 2004; Page C01

In American Century Theater's "Machinal," mother's little helper is a bottle of pebbles that she uses to kill her husband. Based on the story of murderess Ruth Snyder, a photograph of whose execution in 1928 was published in the New York Daily News, "Machinal" is playwright Sophie Treadwell's tense, fascinating portrait of a woman come undone.

Snyder's crime has also been fictionalized in films such as "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice," both of which portrayed the wife as a cold-blooded femme fatale. Treadwell takes a more sympathetic approach, focusing on the unhappiness of her antiheroine, Helen, and glossing over the violence entirely, instead recounting the incident in a trial at play's end.

Treadwell wrote "Machinal" in 1928, but the drama's criminal-as-victim viewpoint, as well as its depiction of a suffocating city lifestyle, seem quite modern. The action takes place in nine episodes, beginning with Helen's morning commute to the New York office where she's a stenographer. Helen (Marni Penning) is having a very bad day, but you get the impression that all her days are bad. She arrives at her workplace flustered and late, and when pressed by her gossipy office mates about her constant tardiness, she faults the subway: "All the bodies pressing . . ." Helen begins anxiously.

"I had to get out in the air!"

As grippingly portrayed by Penning, Helen is a breakdown waiting to happen, a submissive sort who reacts to other people's unending demands with tears in her voice.

Helen jumps at the ring of a telephone or an unexpected touch, particularly one from her wealthy boss, George H. Jones (John C. Bailey). Jones asks Helen to marry him, a proposal she grudgingly accepts, though she doesn't love him. "Love? What does that amount to?" Helen's sickly live-in mother (Sheri S. Herren) scoffs when Helen considers saying no. "Will it clothe you? Will it feed you and pay your bills?" Instead of relieving her sense of obligation, Helen simply trades the burden of her mother for the burden of a husband, and soon a child.

The fact that Helen doesn't want any of this is unfathomable to those around her, and Treadwell masterfully designs every scene so that it's clear everyone thinks Helen is as batty as she feels: Her mother repeatedly calls her crazy when she tries to talk about her sadness; her obstetrician condescendingly asks, "You don't want to nurse your baby? Why not?" while Helen lies depressed in her hospital bed, and the caddish Jones, practically a stranger to his virginal wife, can't understand the distress she feels on their honeymoon, trying to calm her with a somewhat sickening: "You're with your husband." Even a restaurant scene, consisting of snippets of conversation overheard at various tables while a performer sings "Am I Blue," subtly reinforces Helen's issues with conformity, as the patrons repeatedly order more drinks with one word: "Same."

Director Lee Mikeska Gardner amps up "Machinal's" tension nicely, frequently having supporting cast members circle the action that takes place in the center of the Gunston Arts Center performance space, an embellishment that sometimes has a practical reason but more often simply mirrors the chaos occurring in Helen's mind. A more unsettling aspect of the production, however, is its generous use of sound, such as the deafening jackhammers that simulate the construction outside Helen's hospital room. "Machinal" may not convince you that Helen's desperate act of violence was justified, but at the end of its tightly wound 2 1/2 hours, you'll certainly sympathize with her earlier plea: "Let me rest."

Machinal, by Sophie Treadwell. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Set, Thomas B. Kennedy; costumes, Michele Reisch; sound, Brian Mac Ian; lighting, Marc A. Wright. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through July 24 at Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Call 703-553-8782 or visit www.americancentury.org.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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Potomac Stages
Reviewed June 19
Running time 2:25 - one intermission

"A Potomac Stages Pick for a spellbinding staging of an intriguing play"

Lee Mikeska Gardner's staging of this unique1928 play grabs your attention and your imagination from the first image and holds on tight for a fast paced sequence of scenes that are each fascinating in their own right but which combine in a mesmerizing way to explore the character of a woman driven by the pressures of society and the peculiarities of her own reactions to them into a final desperate act that sends her to her death in the electric chair. The performance of Marnie Penning as the woman at the center of the vortex is an evening-long marvel as is Gardner's use of the strikingly simple set designed by Thomas B. Kennedy.

Storyline: In New York City in the 1920's a woman finds her life ever more restricted by the pressures first of work, then of marriage and motherhood making demands on her mind, body and soul. She marries her boss even though she can't stand his touch and can't find the "wedded bliss" society expects. She bears a daughter but can't find the "maternal instinct" she's supposed to feel. Only in an affair can she feel any release, but her lover doesn't offer a permanent arrangement and finally turns on her as well. Murder, even with the consequence of the death penalty, represents her only opportunity to be "free."

The play is not a case of a "true crime story" put on stage, even though its genesis was a headline grabbing case. In 1927 playwright and journalist Sophie Treadwell followed the story of Ruth Snyder, a Long Island wife accused, convicted and executed for the murder of her husband assisted by her lover. Treadwell's play, however, isn't the story of the criminal act itself (indeed, the murder isn't reenacted at all) or even of the trial and execution although they are portrayed in the final two scenes. No, the play is about what would drive a woman to do such a thing. It is about the pressures that ground this particular person down, entrapping her in an existence so intolerable that murder and death were acceptable alternatives. It fascinated Treadwell. Through her script, it fascinates audiences.

Marni Penning gives a high-energy, highly intelligent performance as the woman suffering from pressures she doesn't fully comprehend and certainly can't endure. In the modern vernacular, she is neurotic, but it is the reasons for her neurosis that interested the playwright and the director. Penning makes those reasons clear in her carefully modulated performance. She begins the play already approaching a level of anxiety and confusion that marks a breakdown in progress and then she escalates to the nearly frenetic as her world is circumscribed by the pressures from her mother, her co-workers and her boss who proposes marriage. Penning uses that increased mania to create a contrast for the sense of release from those pressures found in the bed of a lover where she first hears the word "free" used in a way that captures her imagination and drives her final actions.

The two men in her life are given very different but equally satisfying performances by John C. Bailey as her boss/husband and Carlos Bustamante as her lover. Bailey manages to make much more than a mere insensitive and demanding creep out of the role by finding ways to show some real concern and confusion in their developing relationship, while Bustamante gives the man on the make who beds her enough tenderness and compassion to make her fascination with the "freedom" he represents completely understandable. These intelligent performances, along with that of Sheri S. Herren as the woman's mother who can't understand her response to the marriage proposal, give Penning's performance the surfaces off which it bounces and rebounds in the escalating spiral to a striking climax. Excellent ensemble performances set the tone, most notably a marvelous Annie Houston in multiple rolls.

Written by Sophie Treadwell. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Design: Thomas B. Kennedy (set) Michele Reisch (costumes) Suzanne Maloney (props) Marc A. Wright (lights) Brian MacIan (sound) Jeff Bell (photography) Arthur Rodger (stage manager). Cast: Andrea Abrams, John C. Bailey, Carlos Bustamante, Joe Cronin, Danielle Davy, Sheri S. Herren. Annie Houston, Paul McLane, Anne Nottage, Marni Penning, William Sweeney.

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