Machinal, written in 1928 in the expressionist style, gets an often jarring treatment in this Long Beach Playhouse production– a strategy that nevertheless serves the play well.
The first thing the audience sees upon entering the theater is a set of uncommon visual impact. Scenic designer Fred Kinney has crafted industrial gears and pulleys, vertical and horizontal bars, and other unsettling and highly stylized elements that effectively portend a drama hard and uncompromising. Indeed the set mirrors the circumstances of the play’s main character Helen.
Helen (Tiffany Toner), an attractive misfit, is miserably uncomfortable with seemingly every aspect of her existence, from her job as a stenographer to her plight as a young woman with the responsibility of supporting her elderly mother. She ultimately marries her boss (Mark Coyan), whom she detests, believing it is her only viable choice. It is a “jailbreak” marriage, but not of the usual kind. Helen even bears her husband’s child. And the “prison” she finds in her discordant life as a hapless wife and mother seems to her far worse than the one from which she escaped.
Helen finds some temporary relief in an affair with a man (John Conway) with whom she seems to have a connection. At least she is physically attracted to him, she cares for him, and he listens to her. But ultimately his true affection proves elusive and Helen is even more lost than before.
In a fit of passion, albeit premeditated, Helen bludgeons her husband over the head with a bottle filled with stones. He dies and she is tried, convicted, and executed in the electric chair.
Why would this reviewer reveal the ending, you ask?! Without even issuing a spoiler alert! It’s because the play’s interest, even its suspense, is not about how it all ends. (Anyway, we already know from reading the Playhouse’s advertising material.) All that matters is how Helen gets to the point where she would commit murder. And what is most stunning of all is that we can all envision ourselves getting to that point, too. Or can we?
Sophie Treadwell penned Machinal obviously long before it became fashionable to sympathize with murderers at the expense of their victims and the victims’ surviving kin. But maybe this counterintuitive phenomenon has always occupied some niche. More relevant, maybe in the case of Machinal it is beside the point.
The play’s title represents a double entendre, the most obvious of the two signifying Helen’s life ending by way of an electro-mechanical device. But this production also clearly delineates the mechanization of life in its sometimes harshly imposed limitations, and how some are better cut out to fit society’s expectations than others. Unfortunately, Helen is a statistical outlier in the wrong direction.
One of the things that makes this production work so well is the casting of Toner as Helen. She has a gentleness and innocence, indeed a refinement, that makes her about as sympathetic a character as any murderess could possibly be. Her performance forces our emotions to oscillate between understanding her plight, to a far greater degree than we would probably like, to being confounded by her inability to adjust to life in a society that has offered all of us the chance to make a reasonably agreeable go of it.
As Helen’s somewhat self-centered husband, Coyan’s character is a decent enough sort. As such, one wonders if he is as unsuitable a husband as he seems, or if he merely can’t accomplish the impossible– that is, be a satisfying husband to the troubled Helen.
Sherry Denton-Noonan ably handles the role of Helen’s dowdy, nagging mother, who refuses to take seriously her daughter’s pleas for help.
Other cast members, who all ably handle their caricatured or stereotyped roles, are Robert Adams, Lindsay Roman, Madeleine Cheezum, Jeff Rice, Alex Bennett, and Jason Kalani Wong.
Admittedly, Machinal’s dialogue often amounts to a series of words or short phrases delivered more loudly and disjointedly than we would like. But director Katie Chidester has all the right instincts in knowing where stridency is appropriate, and in mounting a production that could hardly be more compelling.
Machinal continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre through June 1. General admission tickets are $24, $21 for seniors. Student tickets are $14 with valid student ID. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, with Sunday matinees at 2pm. The Long Beach Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. Call (562) 494-1014, option 1, for reservations and information. Tickets are also available online at lbplayhouse.org .