‘Machinal:’ Finding connection in a dystopian drama

“Machinal” is based on the highly publicized, real-life case of Ruth Snyder, a young woman who was convicted and executed for murdering her husband. (Courtesy: Emma Neeb)

“Machinal” is a play that explores the costs of human isolation and mutual incomprehension, especially across gender lines, which results in searing societal oppression and gruesome death. Yet for the cast and crew of this riveting and timely production, which opened last Friday at Pomona College’s Allen Theatre, the process of bringing such dark material to life was surprisingly joyful.

Abigail Wilson PO ’23, who is fulfilling her senior thesis as stage manager for “Machinal,” expressed that the production led to a deep sense of trust, community and connection. 

“This cast really bonded quickly,” she said. “We planned so many cast hangouts or, like, [ordered] dinner beforehand or [had] a picnic … everybody cares about each other a lot which always makes a show more fun to work on.” 

Written by Sophie Treadwell in the 1920s, “Machinal” is based on the highly publicized, real-life case of Ruth Snyder, a young woman who was convicted and executed for murdering her husband. The reimagined Snyder character, written simply as “A Young Woman,” was played by Kirby Kimball CM ’25.

“I hadn’t done theater since I was a senior in high school,” Kimball said. “I feel so fortunate that this was my first show back. It just kind of rekindled that spark — that love for live performance and human connection.” 

The cast attributes this sense of camaraderie in large part to Wilson and Ellie Griffin PO ’23, who is also fulfilling her senior thesis as the play’s director. “Machinal” is the fourth and final production in “Inevitable Evolutions,” Pomona’s theater department season, and is the only main-stage production to be directed by a student. 

Carolyn Ratteray, associate professor of theater at Pomona and co-chair of the theater department, said that student-led productions are a valuable part of the mainstage theater season.

“These students are the future theater-makers, and the department is excited to continue to help think about, create and innovate ways to help highlight student work,” she said.

“Machinal” is highly stylized, with quick, repetitive dialogue, portraying a world where characters operate as cogs in a larger capitalist machine. The ensemble is essential to creating this mechanized society, with each actor taking on multiple roles, suggesting people are interchangeable without enjoying any individuality. The production interweaves the actors, conjuring up a crowded subway car, for example, with nothing but a pole and their bodies.

“It’s still relevant today. I think it’s a play about autonomy, and autonomy is kind of up for grabs right now in this country.”

The entirely gray, bare and modernist set creates an atmosphere of dehumanizing monotony. Lights eerily cast shadows on the blank walls, representing windows in one moment or jail bars in the next. The sounds of clacking keys, wiring motors, jackhammers, loud conversation or music sonically dominate most scenes, representing the ceaselessness and senselessness of this industrial society.

The striking costumes were the work of Monica French, the head designer and a visiting assistant professor of theater, who looked to 1920s film and art for inspiration, particularly the Expressionist and Surrealist movements. The costumes work to further isolate the Young Woman. Unlike the rest of the female cast, who appear in identical black bob wings and exaggerated eye makeup, the Young Woman is dressed in light-colored dresses and her hair is natural and brown. 

“I wanted to support themes of archetypal characters, effects of mass mechanization and how the human starts to blend with the machine,” French explained. “I also wanted to create an ensemble that seemed more automaton than human so that the humanity at the core of the lead character’s story could be emphasized.”

“I worked with Monica on streamlining the vision for the show,” Julie Morse PO ’23, who assisted with the production design, said. “I did various tasks such as putting together vision boards and sourcing pieces from rental shops.”

While the show’s costume and tech elements were purposely dated, the show’s subject matter was pertinent. The Young Woman, struggling to make ends meet and support her disdainful mother, is coerced into an unhappy marriage with her boss, who assaults and abuses her. Trapped with a child and husband she never wanted, the woman has an affair that ultimately inspires her to murder her husband in order to be free.

Caleb Brunman PO ’23, who plays the Young Woman’s lover Richard Roe, described the show as strikingly modern.

“It almost feels like a cliché to say it’s an old show but it’s still relevant today. But it is,” he said. “I think it’s a play about autonomy, and autonomy is kind of up for grabs right now in this country.” 

Kimball agreed. 

“Towards the end of the show, you realize that the young woman, of course, is guilty in the eyes of the legal framework within the United States, but many factors that led her to the witness stand were not in her control,” she said. “I think the play is a larger question of the criminal justice system, and hopefully, we’ll have people having interesting conversations when they leave the theater.” 

This relevance, while powerful, was also unnerving, especially in the show’s darker moments. Despite its aesthetic detachedness, the production involved audience members in scenes of graphic domestic abuse, murder and eventual electrocution by placing some of them on the edge of the stage like bystanders condoning the action or convicting members of the jury at the Young Woman’s trial. However, this physical and symbolic closeness to violence and emotional abuse left many audience members with a sense of unease.

“It definitely wasn’t what I expected going in,” said audience member Sebastian Groom PO ‘26. “I didn’t expect it to be as serious, and as sensitive and as powerful as it was.”

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