Most of us are unfamiliar with Sophie Treadwell's play Machinal, which is playing now on Broadway, a play lost to history but with themes that remain current in a number of ways. The recurring motifs of light within darkness, freedom under pressure, and individuality beyond convention will resonate with many theatergoers. What stands out, though, is how different we deal with mental illness (and the perception of it) today versus less than a century ago.
That's surely one of the main topics that Lyndsey Turner hopes we draw from this production: the mistreatment and ignorance displayed by medical professionals and others is disturbing by today's standards. However, it also sets a good framing for Rebeccca Hall's wonderful performance in the lead role as a woman inspired by the infamous Ruth Snyder, a meek woman who wishes she could break free of the chains that hold her back.
Hall perfectly captures her character's restraint, waiting fora brief moment in the second half of the play for some much-needed release. Whether the woman can maintain that form of lifestyle is cast into doubt almost immediately, though.
In the time in between, the audience is delighted with a masterful set that leaves you as much attuned to what's going on in front of you as wondering how they can be pulling it all off behind the scenes. The set rotates and twirls, landing on different settings with new characters appearing. There's always a surprise around the corner. It's a great contrast to the dullness of the woman's life; she's seeking a new direction while the world turns around her.