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REVIEW: ACT Play Explores Murder Story

American Century Theater digs deep into its favorite century's store of rarely produced plays, reviving a 75-year-old crime drama unlike anything else onstage. Under the direction of Lee Mikeska Gardner, the company has revived Sophie Treadwell's play "Machinal" at Theatre II in the Gunston Arts Center.

Don't think "Law and Order" or even Court TV when considering "Machinal," although it was inspired by a true crime story of legendary proportions. Treadwell wasn't really interested in the facts surrounding the actual case of Ruth Snyder, whose execution in New York's electric chair in January 1928 was captured in a photograph that ran the next morning on the front page of the New York Daily News. That photo has since been endlessly reprinted.

What interested Treadwell was how a seemingly normal, middle class woman could have come to the mental state of a murderess. Her play is about the reaction of her heroine to the demands of society — employment, friendship, courtship, marriage, pregnancy and motherhood — and how she cracks under the pressure.

“Machinal” is a drama in nine scenes, each illustrating one of the sources of the stress the heroine feels. There’s the business world demanding results. There's the relationship with her mother demanding obedience. There's courtship and marriage, the honeymoon with its sexual demands and childbirth with its physical consequences. Only in an extra-marital affair does she feel a release from the anxiety and stress.

Marni Penning, an Arlington native now living and performing in New York, plays Helen, the doomed heroine succumbing to these pressures. Her portrayal is striking, from the opening image of her spread out on the floor as if on a crucifix and then reacting to an overwhelming mechanical sound. This may well be the first moment of a fatal emotional breakdown.

Penning manages to maintain the intensity of the performance throughout the two-and-a-half hour show without overplaying any of the scenes. It is a highly impressive performance.

She is supported by a cast of 10, including two very effective performances from the actors playing the most important men in her character's life, the lover who introduces her to a feeling of freedom for the first time in her adult life, and the husband she murders in order to achieve that feeling again.

John C. Bailey is George, the ill-fated husband, and he manages to imbue the part with an essential decency even though the audience really only sees his self absorbed, selfish acts. The depth he gives to the character makes Helen's statement in her trial for his murder — that she couldn't have divorced him because she "couldn't hurt him that way" — seem pathetically understandable rather than ironic or humorous.

Carlos Bustamante also brings more than seems to be written in the text of the play to the role of the lover who honestly deals with Helen, never making promises he doesn't intend to keep in an effort to bed her. When his testimony becomes a key factor in her prosecution for murder, to her it seems a rejection. But to the audience, it isn't a violation of any acceptable code of conduct because it was just an extension of his open and honest approach to their relationship.

Director Gardner stages the play in a square area surrounded on all four sides by the audience hemming in the world of Helen just as the pressures she is feeling completely surround her. At one point the entire cast is marching counter-clockwise around that space with the exception of Penning, who is trying to move clockwise. She seems like a fish attempting to swim upstream against a strong current.

All but Penning double up on roles in order to make the production affordable in today's theater world - the original Broadway production had a cast of 23, including a very young Clark Gable making his Broadway debut two years before he went west to break into movies. The doubling in this production puts a premium on the work of costume designer Michele Reisch, and she does a fine job of outfitting the cast so that their appearances in different roles does not become confusing. Only once is it puzzling, and then it may have been an intentional effect when Andrea Abrams appears in an early scene wearing a costume much like that being worn by Penning.

This is the last of The American Century Theater's 2004-05 season but the 2004-05 season has already been announced. It will include Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life," Odets' "Paradise Lost," Robert Anderson's "Tea and Sympathy," Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones" and a remounting of one of their memorable productions of the past, Jack Marshall's staging of Orson Welles' "Moby Dick Rehearsed."