Chicago Theatre Review
A Living Hell
Machinal – Greenhouse Theatre
Trapped in the machine of contemporary American life, a Young Woman finds her life to be a living hell. She’s boxed into a busy, demanding office job where she’s tormented by her coworkers’ gossip and rude comments. She also has to deal with the flirtation and lascivious behavior of her boss. Her home life isn’t much better. The Young Woman lives with her Mother, a middle-aged widow who is financially dependent upon her daughter. The woman continually criticizes and nags her daughter, attempting to convince her that marriage and family life should be her life’s goal.
When the Young Woman finally gives in and weds her boss, she finds that money can’t buy happiness. Despite being monetarily well-off, married life with this unappealing blowhard is anything but pleasant. Unfulfilled, the Young Woman relents and has a baby with her arrogant Husband, but she finds no joy in motherhood. Instead, she chooses to escape her unpleasant life one night by accompanying her friend to a speakeasy. There she meets a handsome, younger fella who charms her with his seemingly sincere rhetoric and becomes the Young Woman’s Lover. Finally in this one scene we see a smile cross the poor Young Woman’s face, and it’s in this single moment of happiness and passion that she decides what she must do in order to live a fulfilling life.
This drama is loosely based upon the real life case of Ruth Snyder, a convicted murderer who was executed in 1928 for her crime. American journalist and playwright Sophie Treadwell wrote this fictionalized account in the form of an Expressionist drama, a style of theatre that originated in Europe and became popular in America during the 1920’s. In this play, as in others like it, we find a common person, an everyman, struggling against the accepted, everyday values and, particularly, with the bossman in charge. In such dramas, language is elevated and stylized. Stark, symbolic scenic design melds with startlingly dramatic lighting, a metaphor for the shadows darkening the soul of the main character. They are the trademarks found in such plays and musicals as “The Hairy Ape,” “Bury the Dead” and “The Adding Machine.”
Every element of this fine production contributes to a powerful evening of theatre. It is sensitively directed by Greenhouse Theater Center’s artistic director Jacob Harvey, assisted by associate director and movement coordinator, Nick Thornton. Their work is beautifully enhanced by talented movement director Elizabeth Margolius. In this production, language and movement mesh nicely together as a single element. Collectively, this talented creative trio has successfully guided their young cast with staunch precision. They’ve created a production that’s authentic-looking and consistent with the Expressionist Theatre movement. The piece is set within a cold, bleak black-and-white world created by scenic designer Eleanor Kahn and lighting designer Eric Watkins. Employing a powerful sound design and original musical score by Jeffrey Levin, along with simple, yet stylish period costumes by Christina Leinicke, this production is both poetic and emotionally charged.
The entire ensemble is to be commended for their solid performances. Heather Chrisler must be singled out for her tour-de-force performance as the Young Woman. This young actress conveys so much, not only through her biting dialogue, but through her expressive body language and facial reactions. She’s matched by each of her cast-mates. Sean Gallagher is magnificent and annoying as the smarmy boss, who becomes the Husband. He also stands out playing the prosecuting State’s Attorney. Carin Silkaitis portrays a Mother who only wants the best for her grown daughter, while still concerned about her own livelihood. She also does double duty, playing the Young Woman’s valiant Defending Attorney. Cody Proctor smoothly portrays the Lover. He charms the Young Woman with his good looks and suave behavior, offering her a lifetime, or at least a few moments, of happiness. The rest of this brilliantly capable cast play multiple roles with elegance and passion. They include Maddie Burke, Maddie DePorter, Sarah Rachel Schol, Scott Shimizu, Paul Michael Thomson and Jonah Winston.
Told in the Expressionist style, a perhaps little-known theatrical movement from the 1920’s, and based upon a crime story ripped from the headlines of the day, this production is bitting, poignant, stylish and as solid as they come. It tells the sad story of a Young Woman trapped in a humdrum, everyday life that threatens to suffocate her. Never knowing fulfillment or happiness until one fateful night, she ends up committing a crime that will ultimately seal her fate forever. Skillfully and dynamically directed, the Greenhouse offers a meticulously conceived, emotionally acted and skillfully produced production that will resonate with audiences long after the final curtain.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 11-September 24 by The Greenhouse Theater Center, through an educational partnership with North Central College, in the Upstairs Main Stage, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.greenhousetheater.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.