At the height of Machinal’s success in 1928, its playwright Sophie Treadwell would have been considered “the man.” A man? No. Wildly brave, adventurous, talented, brilliant, and strong. Yes. I’d refer to her as “the woman” but this probably wouldn’t have satisfied her, either.
“I am a writer before I am a human, before I am a woman,” Treadwell proclaims early on in the production.
Amen, writer. Amen.
When the beautifully executed one-woman Treadwell: God’s Little Lies opens, Treadwell is sitting at her typewriter, slowly beckoning the audience into her world with sharp wit and blunt accounts of her life. The effect is not “fly on the wall.” The effect is that of a therapist peering over her couch, a long lost friend witnessing a breakdown over coffee. Sophie is looking at you. Daring you. Challenging you to consider her soul and acknowledge her journey. Under Stephen Jarrett’s direction, this approach shines.
Melissa Flaim’s portrayal of Sophie Treadwell is nothing short of entrancing. She opens the show with the charming bravado of a school boy, which quickly cracks, and cracks honestly. Treadwell’s complicated layers are revealed with skill and fearlessness, with the obvious aide of Allyson Currin’s beautiful text. The precision of language is a striking element of the production, which manages to stay within the confines of the time period and within the walls of Treadwell’s head all at once.
While the historical value is great (Treadwell’s journalist endeavors include an interview with Pancho Villa, and trial coverage of murderer Ruth Snyder, who inspired the play Machinal, her most well-known work ) the contemporary resonance is undeniable. Nobel laureate VS Naipaul recently declared to the press that no woman is his literary match, a sentiment one would imagine Treadwell raging against with disgust. The audience watches Treadwell fight her way through a boys’ club, finding the humor in the societal constraints around her, but feeling chained to them just the same. This struggle resurfaces, attacks, and retreats throughout the piece.
The production also has its humorous moments -Treadwell’s encounter with John Barrymore, her first stab at a newspaper job – though the velocity of the story and the force of Flaim as Treadwell is so great, the audience appeared almost too stricken to laugh. This stricken feeling translates to the finale, and when the show ends, one is left feeling as though an emotional rollercoaster has just come to rest. This follows closely in the vein of Treadwell’s work. I doubt she wanted to tuck you in at night and whisper what you wanted to hear; she wanted you to challenge, to conquer, and to think. See Treadwell: God’s Little Lies if you’ve ever felt the urge to do the same.
Treadwell: God’s Little Lies has four more performances at the Goethe Institut 812 7th Street Northwest, Washington D.C., DC 20001