Domestic Miseries

Out of context, Machinal is an astonishing and unique portrayal of one woman's battle with the crippling forces of poverty and social expectations and an unwilling dependence on a loveless marriage. Yet even more remarkable is the story of this play's growing popularity and the emergence of its protagonist, a nondescript, middle-class young woman, as a universal figure. Written by Sophie Treadwell, a reporter, in 1928, Machinal was unlike anything American theatergoers had experienced before. Treadwell loosely based the story on the circumstances surrounding the trial and execution of Ruth Snyder, who was convicted, with her lover Judd Gray, of murdering her husband. Produced on Broadway in 1928, the play was immensely successful with its shocking subject matter, abstract and robotically lyrical language, and popular leading man, Clark Gable.

Yet the play was largely forgotten until the 1990's, when it had a number of revivals. It was produced at the Royal National Theatre in London in 1993, starring Fiona Shaw; Off-Broadway by Naked Angels in 1999; and in a number of Off-Off Broadway productions in 2001 and 2003, not to mention countless national and college productions. One reason it has enjoyed such popularity is that it has lost little of its original resonance. The story of the Young Woman, who is forced by fear of poverty and loneliness to marry and start a family with a man she doesn't love, is a familiar one. As she struggles with a different kind of loneliness, that of being married to a stranger, she finally explodes with sadness, anger, desperation, and self-destruction. She is a powerful character, perhaps as notable a down-and-out Every(wo)man as Willy Loman, and with her frequently lengthy monologues about terrifyingly mundane subject matter, she draws you into her head and leaves you struggling not to empathize with her.

At least, that is the play's potential. Mishandled, it becomes at first a cartoonish take on the burdens of industry and domestic life, and at last an absurdist spin on a Chicago-like trial drama. Unfortunately, albeit with some notable exceptions, the Dreamscape Theatre's new production is a little too much of the latter.

The play starts off with a bang. With director Morgan Anne Zipf's decisive, traditional interpretation, complete with Mara Canlas's period costumes and music and Carlton Ward's fluid, imaginative lighting design, the first "episodes" of the Young Woman's journey are engrossing. Yet as these episodes progress, and set pieces from each scene are piled in a corner of the stage, the production loses steam and begins to feel sloppy. It also loses its edge and self-awareness, and finally settles for a cringe-worthy misuse of the Law & Order theme before the dramatic trial scene at the end.

The play's backbone, undoubtedly, is the Young Woman, and Molly Pope does a formidable job with this difficult role. She makes sense of the character's long streams of nonsequential dialogue, and endows the Young Woman with a tragic combination of frailty and strength-imbuing frustration. But this strange world is constructed out of a dramatic irony. The audience is the only listener privy to the Young Woman's reflections on how her world is treating her. In the context of her existence onstage as an isolated character, it is understandable that she is alone and relates only to the audience. However, in the context of her life onstage, she must relate to the other characters; otherwise, her point about loneliness in even a social setting is flawed.

Pope, though compelling to watch, often seems as if she is onstage by herself. She vehemently decries her boss-turned-husband's "fat hands" and overbearing demeanor, yet in actuality her husband, played by Richard Lovejoy with childlike bounce and insecurity, doesn't seem nearly as intimidating as her many cringes and sidelong glances would imply.

Pope's engrossment with her own character, however, is not singular. Most of the ensemble members, though bringing a number of colorful characters to life, often lose sight of the play's tone. The most notable example is the shouting match of a trial scene that seems completely out of sync with the rest of the play. Zipf's staging might have been more successful had she reigned in the ensemble to create a more consistent world.

Machinal is a great play that presents a tremendous amount of challenges both in production and performance. Zipf and the Dreamscape Theatre, though not entirely successful in confronting these challenges, deserve credit for such an ambitious production.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post