nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
February 20, 2011
Poor Helen. All she wants is to be free: free from the confines of her mother, free from the expectations of her husband and society, and free from the machines around her. But as those who have seen or read Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play Machinal know, Helen, its protagonist, will never be free.
Widely considered to be one of the high points of expressionist drama, the play is based on the real life case of Ruth Snyder, who was convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair after taking part in the murder of her husband. Treadwell episodically details the character of Helen’s distaste for technology, her difficult relationship with her mother, her not-so-happy marriage to her boss, with whom she produces a child, the sexual relationship she has with a mysterious man, the murder, the trial and, ultimately, her death.
Machinal is widely studied, though rarely produced. Blessed Unrest is the first non-collegiate company to be granted the stage rights in five years. Damen Scranton’s production is gripping yet confused, a problem compounded by having six women alternate in the role of Helen.
It’s an interesting move, giving the part to six people of different heights, ethnicities, and races who, when they’re not playing Helen, play her co-workers, reporters, lawyers, and so on. But it limits them from finding the full juiciness of the character and while they all sink their teeth into it, only a few are successful in creating a well-rounded person in such a short time. Particular standouts include Zenzele Cooper, as Helen at home and during the trial, and Celli Pitt, who plays (in different scenes) Helen and her mother. Jason Winfield captures the Husband’s smug self-satisfaction and Darrell Stokes has nice moments as, among other roles, the Lover.
Scranton has given the script an environmental staging, and the action takes place all around the theater space. Benjamin C. Tevlow and Rachel Gilmore’s design is detailed and quite stunning, with tin-foiled walls, moveable set pieces, and evocative lighting.
Don’t get me wrong: this is a very enjoyable production and I’m glad that I got to see it. I just wish that only a single actress had played Helen.