by Toby Zinman
for the Inquirer
Two years ago I reviewed Roundabout Theatre Company's stylish production of Sophie Treadwell's Machinal on Broadway. I wondered then, given the play's dated gender politics and dated expressionist theatricality, why they had bothered to revive it after 86 years. EgoPo Theatre Company has provided the answer: their stunning production, just opened under Brenna Geffers's superb direction, makes the play both relevant and riveting.
Machinal premiered in 1928, the same year that Ruth Snyder was electrocuted at Sing Sing prison for murdering her husband. Treadwell, a journalist and a crusading suffragette, plucked from this media sensation a character called Young Woman (Mary Tuomanen is luminous in the role, revealing her character's rage and desperation and confusion and delight perfectly). This generic naming is obviously meant to suggest that all young women are imprisoned by societal expectations (marry somebody, anybody, have children) and how those constraints distort their lives.
Young Woman is unhappily married to her former boss, Mr. Jones (Ross Beschler is outstanding here, making oddly sympathetic the self-important executive who speaks in clichés, tells unfunny jokes and calls her "little girl"). We glimpse the office with its gossip mongers and tedious routines, and understand why she feels like she's suffocating. At home, her mother has "no pity," and the doctors write her off as one of those "modern neurotic women." Y.W. says, over and over, that she just wants to "be free."
The impressive ensemble provides all the other characters in her life, especially Y.W.'s lover, (Chris Anthony): Colleen Corcoran, Kirsten C. Kunkle, Shamus Hunter McCarty, and Carlo Campbell, Lee Minora and Steven Wright. Their shape-shifting creates a whole society: an office, a bar, a courtroom where everybody is cleverly blindfolded, making them sightless rather than just, and a hospital where everybody refuses to listen to her.
The show's design (Thom Weaver has outdone himself) is fascinating: a gleaming platform with a white lily in the center serves as all the locales; there are flowers everywhere—watch as long-stem roses outline the honeymoon bed—and the sound design—singing, radio broadcasts, music, voice-overs of private thoughts—creates a world increasingly menacing and dark.
Following both The Children's Hour and The Women, Machinal provides a exceptionally fine finale to EgoPo's strong season of nearly-forgotten plays by nearly-forgotten women.