- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The stresses of modern life hold deadly consequences for reluctant Jazz Age baby Helen Jones (Marni Penning) in the American Century Theater’s crisply involving production of Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 expressionistic masterpiece, “Machinal.”

The play, inspired by the 1928 execution of a young woman named Ruth Snyder for the brutal murder of her husband, was ahead of its time not only for its politics, but also for its techniques. The idea of taking an empathetic yet cool-eyed look at a murderess is revolutionary enough, but Miss Treadwell went one step further by using industrial sound effects; rhythmic dialogue; and short, striking scenes to tell the story of one woman who refuses to submit to society’s crushing machinery.

The American Century Theater’s production is further bolstered by a bracingly stylized approach by director Lee Mikeska Gardner, who is producing director of the Washington Shakespeare Company. The soundscape is a brutal mix of clacking typewriters, adding machines, buzzing switchboards, honking traffic, jackhammers and other urban aural ephemera. Miss Gardner has the actors (wearing Michele Reisch’s jaunty, streamlined costumes) constantly in motion, traveling around the borders of the small stage as if on an assembly line, their strides syncopated but a shade robotic.

Everything about the world of “Machinal” is briskly current and fast-paced — the feeling is that you either get on the treadmill like everyone else or get left far behind. In the midst of this forward-thinking, can-do society is Helen, a young woman helplessly out of step. “Must rest, no rest” is Helen’s frenzied mantra as she slogs through the day, enervated by the pep and air of expectation around her.

Helen is desperate and frazzled, her fingers constantly fluttering at her throat like captured butterflies. Every attempt at easing her suffocation only further boxes her in. Marrying her rich boss, George H. Jones (John C. Bailey), seems like a way out of her stifling existence, which involves taking care of her emotionally needy mother (Sheri S. Herren).

Marriage proves to be just another cunning prison, however, as her doting husband (who fell in love with her “pretty hands”) physically repulses her and tells corny jokes nonstop. The awkwardness of their wedding night is visceral, a nightmarish clash between “wifely” expectations and Helen’s palpable dread and disgust. Childbirth does little to soften Helen’s edges; the experience brings about a hysterical nervous breakdown.

Some degree of relief arrives in the form of Richard Roe (Carlos Bustamonte), a romantic rogue on the make who seduces Helen with his tales of the wilds of Mexico and horseback riding in the San Francisco hills. In his bed, she is free — childlike and silly, with newfound sensuality.

Even a lover can’t liberate Helen from her private hell; he only gives her the impetus to murder her husband. Thus, another box is created, and this one will be Helen’s last.

From the beginning, “Machinal” creates a feeling of fascinating dread. You know something horrible is going to happen, that Helen is a doomed creature from the start. The droning sound effects and pounding dialogue create delicious tension and suspense. Equally compelling is Miss Treadwell’s not portraying Helen with sympathy. To the playwright, Helen is the product of a dehumanizing social machine, one that grinds her — and other striving women — relentlessly into the ground.

Miss Penning’s portrayal of Helen similarly shies away from the passive victim type. She is frenetically alive, beating against her constraints to the point of exhaustion. Miss Penning electrifies as the neurotic Helen, but she also is affecting in the languid, tender love scene, where she is crowing and transformed, while Mr. Bustamonte, excellent as the attentive ladies’ man Richard, gently tries to bring her back to earth.

The ensemble cast, playing multiple roles as varied as barflies, garbage men, stenographers and file clerks, make salient impressions. (Mr. Bustamonte also is commanding as a lawyer who whittles Helen down further through cross-examination.)

Although written in 1928, a time when flappers and jazz babies supposedly were turning staid American society upside down, “Machinal” compellingly shows that women in every generation have things that bind them, wear them down to nothingness.

***1/2

WHAT: “Machinal,” by Sophie Treadwell

WHERE: American Century Theater/ Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through July 24.

TICKETS: $18 to $26

PHONE:703/553-8782

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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