LOVERS FOREVER? Brown and Rosenstein.
Staging period plays might be an effective way of presenting a history course, if the inaccuracies in choices like Saint Joan and The Lion In Winter were corrected. Among the plays that accurately represent their times, one choice is not obvious: the 1928 Machinal, by playwright and journalist Sophie Treadwell.
The examination of societal oppression pushed to the breaking point is being staged in a compelling production by the Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA theater programs, directed by Aubrey Snowden. Performances are in the Pell Chafee Performance Center through December 16.
A thumbnail summary is simple: Young girl trained to ignore her own needs escapes servitude to mother by marrying repulsive husband and servicing him until she cracks and kills him. It's based on a homicide that was a major scandal when Treadwell wrote the play, a love triangle that resulted in the America's first electric chair execution of a woman. The playwright's take on its central social and theatrical conflict is clear from the title, a mashup of machine and bacchanal — gears and springs that want to be free are bound to burst apart.
Since the cliched story proceeds unsurprisingly, the means of telling it better be imaginative or we're bound to be bored. Treadwell's plays were exemplars of Expressionistic theater, so opportunities to convey emotions in even everyday situations were taken with hand-rubbing enthusiasm.
Things begin chaotically, representing the turmoil beneath the calm appearances of an office setting. A row of stationary actors madly mime typewriting and one of them stiffly recites a list of numbers like profit and loss tallies presented as holy scripture. In the set design by Tilly Grimes, they stand before a large black picture frame surrounding a stage whose curtain is a taut sheet of white plastic, which characters cut openings into as they speak their first lines. (Your guess is as good as mine as to why.) Then and later, some conversations take place in silhouette, and looming ensemble shadows provide foreboding background.
Our unfortunate protagonist is billed by the playwright merely as Young Woman (Jaime Rosenstein) but goes by the name Helen in the play. She works at a clerical job she hates in order to support her harping, hair-curlered mother (Amanda Dolan). Other office workers whisper and snigger that she's probably fooling around with one of the vice presidents, a "Mr. J," who always finds reasons for her to come to his office. Helen is pleased by his attention, more by his praising her beautiful hands than that he keeps asking her to marry him.
Exhausted by drudge work, she takes the easy way out and accepts his proposal. This is a more difficult decision than might be because she is repulsed by him and his "fat fingers," in contrast to his pointed admiration of her. He is the only character listed by a name rather than a role in the playwright's cast of characters, since the wealth and standing of George H. Jones (Drew Ledbetter) makes him more of a person than the others. (Unfortunately, Ledbetter is slim and handsome; a shame the Class of 2013 doesn't have a genuine fat cat.) Helen's wedding night plight is pathetic, as Jones pretends to not notice her nervousness and, oh what a creep, keeps calling her "little girl."