‘Machinal’ offers empathy for a murderess in 1928 play

Megan Connors, as Helen, and Trevor Thompson, as Dick Roe, star in Santa Barbara City College Theatre Arts Department's student showcase production of "Machinal," which runs for two more weeks at SBCC's Interim Theatre. RICK MOKLER PHOTO
Megan Connors, as Helen, and Trevor Thompson, as Dick Roe, star in Santa Barbara City College Theatre Arts Department’s student showcase production of “Machinal,” which runs for two more weeks at SBCC’s Interim Theatre.

Looking at SBCC’s production of “Machinal,” this revival of a 1928 play, one can peer back into a time of anxiety, where on one hand industrialization was changing society at a rapid pace, where city life was all anonymity and alienation, and on the other hand, one can see a time when social mores were changing and becoming more liberal. There was awareness of being stuck in a machine, but no sense of how to get out of it. At the same time, we can look from 1928’s perspective and see how a lot of “Machinal” reverberates though dystopian fiction in the following decades.

But unlike one particular film contemporary, Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” there is no hero to free us from our chains. Unlike Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” there is no tongue-in-cheek humor or a male protagonist. And unlike Orwell’s “1984” or Huxley’s “Brave New World,” this isn’t the future.

Author Sophia Treadwell reported on the trial of Ruth Snyder, who killed her rich husband and was sent to the chair for it. Treadwell turned around and, instead of exploiting or even damning Snyder, found empathy for her and created the character of Helen (Megan Connors), a victim destined to be punished by the society around her. It’s a brave thing, creating this central character who has little agency in life, and is buffeted here and there by work, a narcissistic boss who becomes her husband, an unfeeling but charismatic lover, a cold mother and assorted authority figures.

Director Katie Laris and her student cast jump into this with gusto and create a work that chugs along like a cold, smooth conveyor belt. “Machinal” is divided into nine episodes, all with one-word titles (“Honeymoon,” “Prohibited,” “The Law,” “A Machine”), a modernistic device still beloved by filmmakers and musicians to this day. The actors, in particular those playing the husband (Maximillian Smith), the nurse (Viola Hammar), the filing clerk (Matthew Andreas), and the doctor/judge (Stuart Orenstein) say their lines in a disaffected robotic tone, as suggested by the mathematical, repetitive nature of the script. Their speech is peppered with clichés and catch phrases, forming a cage where expression of emotion cannot find a natural outlet. In this cage, Megan Connors’ Helen finds herself speaking to herself in chopped-up stream-of-consciousness word collages, or repeating phrases to others with increasing frustration.

It comes down to money. Barely able to make a living and look after her mother, Helen agrees to marry her boss, even though he disgusts her. After a frightful honeymoon, she finds herself trapped once again, though comfortable. But one night out on the town at a speakeasy (think about the etymology of that word), she runs into Dick Roe, who offers her a brief moment of love, sex and — she thinks — freedom.

In the Ruth Snyder case, she conspired with her lover to murder the husband, but in “Machinal,” Treadwell gives that power to Helen alone, though the method of dispatch is inspired by Dick’s murder of two Mexican banditos. Treadwell wants us to see Helen’s outburst as the only real decision she ever undertook on her own.

The set and costume design by Rachel Myers suits the inhumane tone of the play, with frosted sliding doors on all three sides, and a series of metal tables that double as desks, beds and bars. (According to somebody I asked at the theater, these were built in the prop department at SBCC. I think there’s a market for them.) The costumes set the period, especially Helen’s flapper outfit.

Despite the odd acting style, the cast all do well. Megan Connors’ Helen is a sympathetic figure, though she seems permanently rattled throughout. Trevor Thompson has the prerequisite movie-star good looks to play his romantic lead, and the twinkle in his eye tells us right from the beginning of his long-term intentions. Maximillian Smith’s boss is cheerful and preppy and absolutely not listening to anybody, as he’s swallowed a Dale Carnegie book and the damn thing keeps repeating on him. Annie Diehl’s various roles — two of which place her behind a typewriter, pounding keys — provide a counterpoint to Helen’s naiveté.

“Machinal” zips along without an intermission, spitting us out after 80 minutes. Sometimes the pace is too fast, but the end almost feels too evenly paced in what should be a horrific crescendo. Fix that — and maybe they will, the show runs for two more weeks — and “Machinal” is a hair-raising work of expressionist theater that plays as prophecy.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; Runs through Nov. 6
WHERE: Santa Barbara City College Interim Theatre, 721 Cliff Drive
COST: $15 general, $12 seniors and SBCC staff and $8 students.
INFORMATION: (805) 965-5935

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