DECATUR — In the fictional worlds of film and television, the natural tendency is for an oppressed character to become a champion against injustice, but this is perhaps overly ambitious compared to how most people would react in real life. More likely than a martyr-like hero are simple people who just don’t fit in among the prevailing trends of society.
These are the issues at the heart of Millikin University’s staging of the expressionist stage drama “Machinal,” which premieres Wednesday evening.
“The woman at the center of the play is really not a typical protagonist,” director Denise Myers said. “She’s not a rebel trying to change the system. She just wants to be left alone, to exist outside the system, but the world won’t let her do it. The machine sucks her in because it’s not ‘efficient’ for her to go a different way than everyone else.”
The play was originally performed on Broadway in 1928 as part of the German expressionism movement’s migration to American soil. Its central character, Helen, was based on the real-life case of murderess Ruth Brown Snyder, who killed her husband and was executed via electric chair.
“She was the first woman electrocuted in the United States, and the trial was sensational,” Myers said. “It was so sensational that a reporter snuck into the execution with a camera strapped to his leg and got a photo during the electrocution that became a very famous shot.”
In the play, Helen’s motivations for the murder stem from a lifetime of “choices” that have really been forced upon her by society’s expectations. She marries a man she doesn’t love under pressure from her parents, and has a baby under pressure from her husband. Eventually though, it all just becomes too much.
“I think she’s oppressed, but not in the way that people would expect,” Myers said. “We’re trying very hard to show that her husband is not truly abusive, he’s just doing what he’s been told to do. Women are lower than he is, and they’re supposed to do what he wants. He never hits her or anything like that. There’s just a hierarchy that he expects, and she doesn’t fit in that hierarchy.”
For a cast that features underclassmen in some of the most pivotal roles, including the lead, Myers worked with her students on the intricacies of how to act in the expressionist style. Terrence Hodge, a sophomore who portrays an array of secondary characters, said he found this educational aspect of the production particularly interesting.
“Denise reminds us all the time not to be ‘too real’ in our acting,” he said. “We have to use the set and our movements to tell the story in an expressionistic way while still trying to maintain some sort of truth. If you pay attention, there is so much to notice, like the way that all the characters besides the young woman have no arc or no journey. It emphasizes how unchanging everything is in the machine around her.”
Jacqueline McNaughton, a freshman, plays the lead role of Helen in her first main stage production at Millikin, and was taken aback by all the new experiences the show has entailed for her.
“This is so different from anything I’ve done, but in the best way possible,” she said. “I’ve never worked so hard on a show. I feel like I’m getting all these skills that I never knew anything about.”
Particularly when it comes to acting in the expressionist style, McNaughton is thrilled to have a chance to embody such a complex, unusual character.
“There are so many nuances in this show to things like body movement, how you hold yourself in a scene and how that plays into who has power,” she said. “They’re minute details that I never thought would matter, but it adds so much. I can’t wait for people to see it.”