Shifts of self: A preview of Machinal

Julia Baker '18 (left) and Niamh O'Donovan '21 navigate mother-daughter conflict in rehearsals for Sophie Treadwell's Machinal. Photo via Matt Beaune.

Four employees sit behind desks made of stacked boxes, the ancient phones and typewriters balanced atop them proudly chanting the mechanical music of an early-century business day. A fifth workstation, situated between the other four, sits empty. In quick succession, the present employees reel off statistics, answer calls from sometimes-lovers, shift through paperwork, and transcribe memos, all the while chattering amongst themselves. One-liners, office demands, shameless flirting – and always, always, some invisible her. She’s late. Inefficient. Got something to do with the boss, something big, something questionable.

When she finally arrives, though, the Young Woman just sits down at her black-box desk, her typewriter the singular static object in an environment buzzing with urgency. As she haltingly attempts to account for her tardiness, explaining that she just had to get out of the subway, that there were too many “bodies pressing,” a sound like thunder in the distance rises in tandem with her body. She stands begging, trying to justify herself until the rumbling reaches a fever pitch, then – silence.

“Take a taxi!” one of the workers shouts. The others laugh, and the Young Woman allows herself a wavering smile as she sinks back into her chair, panic momentarily contained.

This is Machinal (pronounced either MAH-key-nahl or MAH-shee-nahl), Muhlenberg’s first mainstage of the 2018/2019 season. Written in 1928 by reporter, playwright and feminist Sophie Treadwell and directed by Baker Artist-In-Residence Lou Jacob, Machinal will run in Baker Theatre from Sept. 27 to 30. Due to its early placement in the school year, the play was cast in the spring and has been in rehearsals since several weeks before classes began. Julia Baker ’19, who brings to life the Young Woman, describes the rehearsal process as challenging, but worthwhile.

Machinal … tells the true and still relevant story of how a woman maneuvers and succumbs to societal pressures put upon her to be the perfect, stereotypical wife, mother and woman… The play is written into nine vignettes, so a typical rehearsal consists, at least right now, of running vignettes 1-5, or 6-9,” said Baker.  “It’s exciting to have vignettes that vary in time span and cast from one to the next, so it feels as though the world is evolving and acting around Young Woman, yet somehow not with her in it. Rehearsals are actually unbelievably collaborative, in which Lou will ask those watching whether or not particular moments looked good, and Lou really listens. He’s always up for discussions and allows impulses to become blocking. I feel as though Lou truly listens and wants to make these moments as personal for us as possible, which is a really nice, refreshing thing.”

Director Lou Jacob is a member of the Tony Awards Nominating Committee, recipient of the Princess Grace Statute Award and director of many productions, including several off-Broadway and touring credits. During a break in rehearsal, he discusses with a stage manager the prospect of visiting playwright Sophie Treadwell’s time in history. When the stage manager balks, Jacob is incredulous: “Oh, it would be so cool!” he exclaims. “It’s my fantasy to go back there to find out what it was like.”

Jacob’s driving passion for the subject matter becomes immediately tangible as the world of the play is acted into reality. Robert Stinner ’20, who plays Man 4, states that Jacob’s unique stamp on the piece is what truly makes it a must-see.

“This is the first Mainstage production I’m acting in, and working with Lou has made it a rewarding and memorable experience,” Stinner said. “He’s incredibly committed to honoring Sophie Treadwell’s text, while also forming an exciting and disturbing production which will resonate with contemporary audiences. He’s also helped a lot in maintaining a supportive and fun rehearsal environment, which is important when working on material as dark as Machinal.”

This conclusion is echoed by Sylvia Fisher ’21, who plays Woman 6 in the production.

“Lou is really great about asking us questions leading us to our own conclusions and choices,” said Fisher. “Since the subject material is so heavy, it is very taxing staying in character for a long time so often we will debrief and just take a moment to talk about how we as individuals feel about our characters and their experiences.”

These experiences range from workplace shenanigans to mother-daughter conflict to sexual assault, and that’s only within the first three vignettes – the play as a whole travels to some bleak places, both literally and figuratively, within the life of the Young Woman.

“Personally, I really love Young Woman, because she ages six years within the span of the play. In these six years, Young Woman undergoes constant shifts of self, in which she knows that the life she has differs horribly from the life she wants,” said Baker. “She is always seeking something, looking for a shred of hope and trying to take on the responsibility of this woman’s life is just plain hard. I struggle an awful lot, but I really enjoy the struggle of trying to understand a multi-faceted woman, endlessly trying to find peace within a world that endlessly forces her to submit.”

Baker’s character speaks either in short, timid sentences or a vortex of repeating thoughts, stream-of-consciousness style. Even when everything around her moves slowly, her words sometimes seem to travel at the speed of light, tripping over themselves and scrambling back around to some semblance of a beginning, connecting but breaking apart just short of sense. It’s hard to watch, but impossible to look away from: the Young Woman’s interactions with her fellow employees, her mother and her male boss all teeter on the edge of violence, and Baker’s mastery of this fraught character is impressive to behold. The Young Woman is constantly prompted to obey, prompted to speak when told, prompted to perform tasks she can’t bear the thought of. Her pain is etched plain on her face, and we, the audience, must bear witness to this harsh reality – and its harsh consequences.

“The circumstances of the play still ring true now, which I think pushes the idea that despite the advances of women as equals, the uphill climb is still steep, but worth the trek,” Baker said. “Perhaps by shining light on this discrepancy, we can move ever closer to raising the definition of what it is to be a woman, to be feminine and to be free.”

Don’t miss your chance to see Machinal on Sept. 27 to 30. Be aware that this production is for mature audiences.

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