MACHINAL, Asylum Productions, at Chopin Theatre. Working-girl Helen is coerced into marrying the middle-aged Mr. Jones, whose touch she finds repugnant. A brief affair with an adventurer sparks her to dreams of liberation so intense that she murders her husband in a fit of rebellious passion. Sentenced to the electric chair, Helen wonders whether she will find the freedom she desires in death.
Since its premiere in 1928, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal has been overshadowed by Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine, which it resembles: both use expressionistic techniques to explore the loss of individual identity in an industrialized society. Though its message is rather threadbare, even as feminist propaganda, no less than two productions of the play have been staged here in the space of a year. But unlike Eclipse Theatre’s version, which turned the text into little more than a clothesline on which to hang actorly embellishments, this Asylum Productions staging respects the material. Treadwell’s abbreviated, almost monosyllabic dialogue is delivered in a stylized but emotionally honest way that reveals each character’s truth more poignantly than any amount of hotdogging. And director Nora Herold’s decision to cast against convention–Courtney Lewis’s sturdy Helen is no Winona Ryder waif, nor is the baby-faced Matthew Gray’s soldier of fortune a Tom Berenger macho man–makes the characters’ predicaments all the more moving: these people resemble the very real people around us. Though some elements of the production are uneven and the Asylum troupe is barely out of the classroom, this show seems to indicate plenty of the right stuff.