The 1927 murder of Albert Snyder by his wife, Ruth, and her lover, Henry Judd Gray, set the stage for one of the decade’s most memorable trials. Journalists, filmmakers, and rubberneckers flocked to the courtroom in Long Island City where Ruth was convicted and sentenced to death. Machinal, an American expressionist play by Sophie Treadwell, appeared the following year on Broadway and became the first in a line of dramatic representations of Ruth, her crime, and her fate.
When Santa Barbara City College revives Machinal, beginning on October 20 and running at the Interim Theatre through November 6, director Katie Laris and her cast will be taking on more than just the resuscitation of a mostlyforgotten stage play. Treadwell was an intrepid journalist and a women’s rights advocate in addition to being an accomplished playwright, and Machinal delivers a potent and timeless feminist message. Unlike Double Indemnity, which portrays Ruth as a heartless femme fatale, Machinal dares to take the audience inside the protagonist’s journey, asking them to imagine a society so bereft of authentic human connection that it could drive a good woman to kill. I spoke with Laris by phone last week about some of the features that make this show one of the fall season’s must-see theatrical events.
1. To rage against the machine: “As I have been working with Megan Connors, who plays the lead,” Laris told me, “I have been emphasizing to her that she is the only character in the play who has not been dehumanized. The word ‘machinal’ is French for unconscious or mechanical, and I want her to show the danger of being the only sensitive creature in a mechanical and inhuman society.”
2. To marvel at an expressionist set: According to Laris, “The play is as innovative dramatically as it is shocking in its themes. There are nine scenes and each is set in a discrete location, so the set, which is by Rachel Myers, is this wonderful abstract composition of jail-cell bars, industrial metal, and frosted glass.”
3. To share the excitement of an acting challenge: “What I am asking these young actors to do is doubly hard,” Laris said, “because, apart from the two leads, they all have to introduce elements of mechanization and stylization into their performances. The play is about this young woman’s transcendent experience of freedom through sex and murder, and it will only work if the world she inhabits is truly alien, so the other actors will have to go a long way to make that part of it work.”