9 March 2007: Treadwell, Machinal

Hallie Flanagan Studio Theatre, Smith College Department of Theatre. Directed by Leta Tremblay ‘07

I usually stay away from undergraduate productions, especially those directed by undergraduates, but I was interested in seeing this play again. I saw the National Theatre production, with Fiona Shaw as the Young Woman, some years back, and more recently an Amherst College production, an experiment in which the Young Woman was quadruple cast, to mixed results. I’m very glad I saw this current Smith College production. I’ve seldom seen undergraduates do something so pitch perfect. The young Woman, played by Brett Mathewson ‘07, was fully up to the role. Wide-eyed, incredulous over what the world as she was experiencing it was like — Could it be as bad as it seemed? — Mathewson found an instinctive level of feeling in her character that seemed to impel her onward, even while she just as instinctively recoiled from the touch of the office super­visor, George H. Jones, who likes the shape of her hands and marries her, much to her revulsion.

I don’t think Treadwell means to portray a lesbian woman here, but rather a woman who deeply resents being interfered with, imposed upon, made part of the soulless mechanistic routine of modern life. Her impulse is to make herself free, and in that impulse, railing against all the forces of life that impinge on and constrict the individual life, Treadwell identifies the central idea of her play. And that impulse is most fully, and beautifully, expressed in Episode Six: INTIMATE, in which the Young Woman succumbs to the temptation of a man she meets in a speakeasy, who takes her back to his one-room apartment and makes love to her. The scene was truly magical, staged quite erotically and yet tastefully, accom­plish­ing for the Young Woman the release she has so deeply longed for — and at the same time, ironically, setting up the murder of her husband. In the speakeasy the man she meets tells the story of how he escaped the Mexican banditos who had captured him: he filled a bottle with small pebbles and used it as a club to kill his captors. “I had to do it, didn’t I?” He asks rhetorically. “I had to get free.” At the end of their first encounter, the Young Woman asked the man to give her the water lily he has bought for himself, growing beautifully in a shallow blue vase, surrounded by pebbles. She will use these pebbles to fill a bottle with which she will murder her husband.

This is expert, compelling dramaturgy on Treadwell’s part, and this produc­tion exploits it, skillfully and very effectively. During the INTIMATE scene, the flower is highlighted by a spotlight; it almost glows, and it is no surprise when we discover that the Young Woman has her eyes on it. This is a deft touch on Treadwell’s part. And the matter of the woman’s hands is also a centrally import­ant touch. The man — he is simply First Man, played extremely well by a Hamp­shire College student, Duncan Riddell ‘07 — comments on what beautiful hands she has. And I recall that Treadwell makes much of this in the stage directions for this scene, in the moment of embrace, in which she describes the woman’s hands as effectively both beautiful and a symbol of her vulnerability.

It’s a fine play, superbly well cast. Inevitably, the number of men’s roles need­ed to be played by women, cross-dressed, and they were perfectly appro­priate. There was a very well maintained discipline in this cast. All the actors had been rehearsed to play their roles with nearly expressionless faces, except for the more major personages: George H. Jones, the Mother, the Man, and of course the Young Woman herself, who is full of feeling and constantly conflicted over whe­ther it is safe and appropriate or not to express herself. Whether she does or not, her hands are the truest emblem of her character, her person, even her soul.

This was a truly fine production, and the resources of the Hallie Flanagan theatre were used to the utmost. Scenes were set on floor-level wagons that could be rolled out into the central playing area by actors at the four corners, each using a stout staff to push and guide; once in place, four locks were set. While one scene was playing, the other two wagons, left, right, or up back, were being sil­ent­ly re-set for the next scenes. As the scene moved into place at center, the lights would come up, and a plug would be inserted in the floor at the upstage end of the platform, or wagon, for table lamps or other lights particular to that setting.

It must have taken a great deal of design, planning, execution, and rehearsal to get this right. But they got it right, flawlessly. I detect some expert faculty help behind the scenes. Sam Rush is credited with being Production Coordinator, evidently to much good effect.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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