When Sophie Treadwell wrote Machinal in 1927, she shared with such colleagues as Edith Wharton and Dorothy Parker a profound disillusionment of the options afforded the contemporary woman. Maybe Parker was more blithe about it and Wharton more enduring, but Treadwell’s message was undoubtedly apropos for an age caught in an industrial eddy. The arc of a life that Treadwell kneads into this expressionistic indictment of American ambition points blame in every direction.
Played by the riveting Kate Goehring, Helen is fated to live her life in a series of prisons both literal and figurative. Throughout the play, she’s at crossroads made ever more difficult by her ambivalence. Should she submit to her clammy boss or resist? Should she marry or pursue a career? The result of each decision seems to tighten around her like a cruel manacle. She’s sustained — almost — by her belief in the theory of flight; in a world where “haste makes waste” and a woman’s place is to be seen and not heard, freedom is as attainable as her imagination wills it to be.
Everything comes to a head in the remarkable “Episode Five — Prohibited,” where a speakeasy is the site of the married Helen’s fall to an exotic swain. She is bordered on one end by a young couple debating an abortion and on the other by a sophisticated gay man seducing a young laborer. Just as these scenarios play out with lasting consequences, so too does Helen’s — her affair both frees and imprisons her.
Missouri Repertory Theatre’s production is forcefully directed by Risa Brainen, the theater’s new associate artistic director, who avails herself of actors and designers from Seattle to Boston to erect this quintessentially American story. Besides Goehring, who easily goes from wispy to pathetic to cold-blooded in the role, Brainen’s casting choices are most assured with Theodore Swetz as Helen’s husband; R. Ward Duffy as Dick Roe (the sly double entendre of a sex-starved gourmand), Helen’s lover; and Larry Paulsen as a prosecuting attorney.
The show is thrillingly designed, with every cent of its budget an investment in Treadwell’s vision of a system caught with its sleeve in an unforgiving cog. Most of Devon Painter’s costumes are monochromatic, but Helen’s dresses are uniformly sky-blue to mirror her heavenward hopes and dreams. Victor En Yu Tan’s lighting is excellent at every point along Russell Metheny’s vast yet fluid set, equal parts industrial chilliness and art nouveau that are in sync with all of Helen’s contradictions. Tom Mardikes and Michelle DiBucci are cocredited with sound design, impeccably seasoning each of the play’s nine episodes with its own personality. Between the “clackety-clack” of Helen’s office, the deceiving lilt of her honeymoon and the hideous amplification of something being sawed in half that opens a hospital scene, there’s no way to select a favorite — every choice is a grace note.