As the concluding play in EgoPo’s American Giants II Festival featuring women playwrights, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal reminds us that women’s place is in the room with the rest of the guys.
It’s a performance that leaves us shaken and stirred. Mary Tuomanen, as Young Woman in EgoPo Classic Theater’s production of Machinal, is so painfully compelling that it’s hard to look away even when her vulnerability makes us cringe at her husband’s unwelcome touch, even when her passion is so raw it makes us feel like voyeurs.
The play is all style and familiar substance. It’s a simple story — a young woman, trapped in an unhappy marriage, has an affair. Where it differs from most real stories is that she kills her husband and is electrocuted for her crime. No spoiler alert needed — the play is based on the real story of Ruth Snyder, who in 1927 murdered her husband with her lover’s help. Like an old episode of Columbo, the fun is not in figuring out who done what, but in watching the presentation unfold.
And yet, and yet, I wanted to feel more. The stylistic approach — which Treadwell’s 1928 script demands, and which Brenna Geffers manifests brilliantly in almost balletic form — keeps me at a distance. I found myself left with intellectual appreciation but no emotional catharsis.
Thom Weaver’s set is minimal — folding chairs, a table that acts as gurney and cage, lights that illuminate the audience with the stage in shadow. Flowers are always present — a marriage bed of bed of blood red roses, white petals falling from the ceiling — reminding us perhaps that women are like flowers, yet roses have thorns. Rotating characters — office workers, mother, nurse, garbage man — populate the stage. Ross Beschler as the husband and Chris Anthony as the lover emerge from the ensemble and then rejoin it.
When EgoPo announced that a season of women playwrights as an antidote to last year’s all male American Giants Festival, it seemed only right. As Machinal reminds us, women have struggled for years to make their voices heard. Interesting then, that while most seasons have a surfeit of plays by males, starring mostly males, Machinal is being mounted during a season replete with female playwrights, including most recently Jennifer Haley’s The Nether at Interact Theatre Company at the Drake and Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers at Philadelphia Theatre Company. Not to forget that this season also featured Kim Davies’s Smoke at Theatre Exile, and The It Girl, conceived by Amanda Schoonover, Brenna Geffers and Anthony Crosby at Simpatico Theatre Project, as well as Inis Nua’s Hooked, by Gillian Grattan, and Spine, by Clara Brennan.
The variety of topics covered in these plays should disabuse us of the idea that women speak with one voice. From how to navigate relationships in the age of the Internet to how a passion for books changes a young woman’s life, it’s clear that women have stories to tell.
There is no monolithic female playwright, just many voices clamoring to be heard. The current diversity of female voices in Philadelphia theaters benefits women and theatergoers alike.
To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.