‘Air’ will leave TimeLine audiences breathless
by Hedy Weiss, Theater Critic
published January 29, 2009
Playwrights often talk about the way characters suddenly “appear” to them and begin to assume a life of their own, almost dictating their lines. In Masha Obolensky’s compelling new play “Not Enough Air” — a fearsome feminist outcry now in a powerfully acted, drivingly directed world premiere at TimeLine Theatre — the relationship between writer and character is turned into a complex dance for four. It is a painful dance, one that feeds on the dense layering of real and creative relationships, disturbed mental states and the quest for freedom.
To begin with, there is a playwright, the pioneering American dramatist Sophie Treadwell (played with great feverishness and intelligence by Janet Ulrich Brooks). Then there is the real-life New York woman Ruth Snyder (the ever-intriguing Danica Ivancevic), who was convicted and sentenced to death for murdering her husband, and whose trial was observed by Treadwell, an established journalist. Finally there is the character of Helen (the remarkable Mechelle Moe), who Treadwell put at the center of her groundbreaking 1928 Expressionist drama “Machinal” — a play about a young woman driven to madness and murder by the people and machines she feels have controlled her life.
And who is the fourth woman in all this? Clearly it is Obolensky. The playwright herself has delved into these three women’s lives with such relentlessness and fervor that her identification with Treadwell seems to exist on some visceral level. Her play — which founders a bit in its first act but catches full fire in the second —is so intense you have to believe she has wrestled with her own demons. She appears to understand the pressure that comes from trying to balance an artist’s need for huge amounts of obsessive solitary time with the desire for a comforting romantic relationship.
As for Treadwell, she is a woman of steel, as well as a woman on the edge. Her writing consumes her, at times sending her into the hospital. And while she has an “understanding” with her husband, a sportswriter (David Parkes) who knows how brilliant and driven she is, she realizes their agreement about time apart is perhaps more than he can live with. This generates a sense of constant guilt and resentment in her.
As for Snyder, her life became the stuff of tabloid headlines (and a couple of novels and films, including “Double Indemnity”), but beyond the facts that she married a much older man and conspired with a lover to murder her husband, Treadwell seemed to sense a different kind of desperation in her that contained aspects of her own. And in “Machinal” she combined all this turmoil, and her brilliant theatrical imagination, to create something even more distilled and troubling.
Director Nick Bowling and his three sensational actresses have given the production a wonderfully hallucinatory quality. Set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge’s period-perfect suggestions of newspaper office, prison cell, hospital room and rotating bed are an ideal match for the material, enhanced by Andrew Hanson’s stunning sound and music, Heather Gilbert’s lighting and Lindsey Pate’s subtly tinted costumes.
Playing multiple roles as the other men in the story are Terry Hamilton (particularly funny as Treadwell’s gay agent), and Zach Kenney. But “Not Enough Air” is unquestionably about the female of the species. In fact, Freud, who famously is supposed to have asked “What do women want?” might have found some answers here.
NOTE: TimeLine will present eight concert readings of “Machinal” (7 p.m. Sundays and Mondays, Feb. 8-March 2), with Mechelle Moe leading the cast in a reprise of her extraordinary award-winning performance in The Hypocrites’ 2003 production of Treadwell’s play. If possible, attend the reading first. Obolensky’s play thrives on prior knowledge, though it certainly doesn’t require it.
The biggest asset of the Chicago theater? No question, it’s the quality of the acting. In 2010, distinguished performances lit up Chicago-area stages from Evanston to Hyde Park. We admired scores of them this year, which was a very good year on Chicago stages, but we’ve culled the list. So here, in alphabetical order, are our 10 best performances of the year in the Chicago-area theater, along with the original review and information as to where you can see these actors next. If you were there for some of these plays, it should remind you of remarkable evenings of artistry. If not, well, here’s what you missed in 2010 in this great American theater city, where the focus is always on the actor. Don’t make the same mistake next year. (Chris Jones, The Chicago Tribune, 12.23.10)
Mechelle Moe in “Stage Door” by Griffin Theatre | REVIEW
There was a lot of Mechelle Moe in Terry Randall, the moral and practical leader of the young theatrical wanabees who inhabit the boarding house at the center of Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s 1936 comedy, “Stage Door.” Moe clearly dug deep to play a brilliantly talented stage actress who insists on truth and honor in all things, and finds that the big show-business prizes invariably go to those who are not so picky. It was a beguiling performance ringing with authority and, under the surface, more than a little pain. Moe and her director, Robin Witt, seemed to understand that this play was a metaphor for Moe’s years of superb work in Chicago theater — where the rewards don’t always match the effort or the artistry.
Up next: appearing in “The Front Page” at the TimeLine Theatre Company, April 16 to June 12