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'Machinal' portrays the institutional crushing of the free spirit


Nathaniel Kohlmeier, Caleb Curtis, Conner Starks and Reid Henry perform in "Machinal" at the Wells-Metz Theatre. The show is based on the true story of the first woman to be electrocuted in the electric chair. Courtesy Photo Buy Photos

In the midst of her work at a fast-paced, chaotic corporate office, Abby Lee, the actress playing Young Woman, stopped to think aloud.

"No rest — must rest — no rest," she said. "Hurry — job — no job — no money — installments due — no money — money."

Defying kitchen-sink realism and aiming for emotional accuracy, IU Theatre’s “Machinal” ran from Feb. 23 to March 3 at the Wells-Metz Theatre. 

Based on the real story of the first woman to be executed in the electric chair, the 1928 expressionist play follows the story of a nervous and guarded woman in search of happiness after she falls into a marriage she regrets.

“Avant-garde, shocking, and surreal, ‘Machinal’ twists the sensational real-life story of murderer Ruth Snyder into a dark, machine-like world filled with faceless aggressors and distorted shadows,” according to the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance website.

Young Woman works at a corporate office among businessmen and women who speak quickly and perform tasks on solid, abstract blocks and rectangles, meant to be telephones and typewriters.

“I want to rest,” Young Woman said in the midst of them. “No rest. Earn. Got to earn. Married — earn — no — yes. Earn.”

The other employees go about their work. They walk in long strides with purpose and intent, and Young Woman weaves in and out of them. At one point in their beehive-like pace, someone bumps into her and she drops her letters.

“She’s inefficient,” one worker said as she watched Young Woman pick up the letters. 

Order, discipline and conformity set up the main conflicts for Young Woman’s desire to be free and content. Feeling tremendous social pressure to marry, she marries her boss. However, he is self-absorbed and emotionally unavailable. His demanding and expectant demeanor forces her into intimidating sexual and romantic positions.

Following the birth of their daughter, she did not feel anything for him or the child. 

“You don’t want your baby?” the Doctor, played by Caleb Curtis, asked shortly after Young Woman gave birth. “What do you want?”

“Left. Alone,” Young Woman said. “Left. Alone.”

The show’s color scheme is drab and dry. Characters wear gray and black business suits and dresses. The stage is black with painted white paths across it. 

Spanning above the stage are sets of taut white strings, bursting in every direction at dramatic angles. Some sets originate from a single point and skew outwards, while other sets maintain straight, parallel rows.

The only splash of color comes at a dinner party. In the scene, Young Woman wears a pink dress, and the person she is romantically interested in wears a pink waistcoat. 

She speaks to him. They have an affair in a pink-lit apartment. He sings “Cielito Lindo,” or “Beautiful Heaven,” to her. A portion of the taut white strings above the stage loosens and relaxes. 

This scene portrays a snapshot of happiness, connection and fulfillment in Young Woman’s otherwise difficult and isolated life.

The show progresses to a trial where Young Woman faces execution. Lawyers yell with guttural cries and intense, passionate gestures.

Their powerful voices, judicial and corporate jargon and overwhelming callousness to emotional depth, contrasts the protagonist’s desire to be alive and free. These forces impress the capability of social and judicial institutions to grind and crush the human soul into submission.

Before the final scenes, Young Woman faces a prison Barber, played by sophomore Felix Merback, who comes to cut off all of her hair.

“Submit?” she said. “Is nothing mine? The hair on my head!”

“You’ll submit, my lady,” the Barber replies. “Right to the end, you’ll submit.”

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