Total Rating: 
September 24, 2017
Greenhouse Theater Center
Theater Type: 
Greenhouse Theater
Theater Address: 
2257 North Lincoln Avenue
Sophie Treadwell

Spousal murder has all the elements for successful drama: sex, violence, deception, and conspiracy—all simmering beneath the placid surface of our culture's most intimate contract. Is it any wonder that so many writers have found inspiration in real-life accounts of wives killing husbands? Of the fictional hypotheses arising from the sensational case of Ruth Snyder in 1928 (among them, James M. Cain's “Double Indemnity”), however, only Sophie Treadwell's takes a sympathetic view of a frustrated housewife whose obsession with fleeing a stifling marriage led her to snap one night.

It speaks for the anonymity of our heroine in Machinal that we don't even know her name until halfway into the play. At her job, she is only "Miss A." Later, after her mother bullies her into accepting her boss’s proposal of marriage, she becomes "Mrs. Jones." Not until she ventures forth on an illicit date where she meets a romantic drifter do we learn that her name is Helen. The stranger's tales of his travels—how he once fashioned a weapon from a bottle filled with rocks to escape capture by Mexican bandits—awaken in the young matron a hunger for the freedom denied her. Finally, as she awaits execution for the fatal bludgeoning of her consort, we hear her name uttered in full for the first time.

Treadwell recounts her story in the non-representational mode known as Expressionism, its text encompassing orchestrated group dialogues, stream-of-conscious soliloquies and other emotive distortions rarely encountered today. Fortunately, director Jacob Harvey has enlisted the aid of Elizabeth Margolius, who creates scenery from human bodies on Eleanor Kahn's starkly minimalist arena—arranging actors in a tight cluster of staccato vocals and spastic movement to suggest the pressures of a crowded office, for example, or lining up Helen's persecutors in military review formation as their forlorn prisoner reflects on a life journey bringing nothing but despair.

This collaboration between the Greenhouse Center Theater and Naperville's North Central College is also lucky to have Heather Chrisler on board in the role of Helen. The stage picture frequently features our solitary martyr isolated in spotlight at its focal point, so that we register her slightest twitch or shiver, right down to the curl of her foot when the man she will come to hate touches her. The entire ensemble is superb, but this is the performance that you will remember.

adult themes, violence
Heather Chrisler
Mary Shen Barnidge
Date Reviewed: 
August 2017