PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Machinal—A Showstopper: The Set

By Harry Haun
19 Jan 2014

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Being strapped to an electric chair does seem a strange way for British theatre royalty to meet Broadway, but this is how Rebecca Hall chose to make her first big Main Stem Move, playing the first woman in the 20th century to be executed at Sing Sing.

The daughter of international opera singer Maria Ewing and Sir Peter Hall, the British stage director who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company, is creating some fame on her own these days the hard way — not just in this difficult opening night but in choosing to make her Broadway bow as the Queens housewife who killed her husband for his insurance and went to the chair 86 years ago this week.

One of the most famous tabloid photos of all time, taken at the moment of her death and plastered across the front page of the New York Daily News, immortalized Ruth Snyder. It was taken by Jason Sudakis' great-grandfather, Tom Howard, a Chicago Tribune photographer hired by The News. He got that notorious, and quite illegal, shot with a miniature camera strapped to his left ankle and a shutter button in his jacket. His camera now has a place at the Smithsonian, and Snyder rests ignominiously in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, under her maiden name, Brown.

That grim front-page visage of "Ruthless Ruthie," as the tabloids called her, bound, gagged and blindfold for execution — and her last words on earth: "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing" — drove Treadwell to do Machinal, and she had it on Broadway less than nine months later. Writing in the then-popular Expressionist mode of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Age and Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, she identified Snyder as Young Woman in the cast of characters and as Helen Jones under oath at her trial — a cog in the mechanical wheel of her times.

Matt Tierney's sound design is practically a play-through of modern noises — subway, switchboard, adding machine, typewriter, cameras and electric chair.

"I think I like best about is her ordinariness, if that's a word," said Hall, who's anything but ordinary up close and in person after the show. All hail Paul Huntley's hair and wig design and Michael Krass' costume design for making the ridiculously ravishing dowdy.)

"She's not particular heroic or extraordinary in any way. She's an Everywoman, and the play sorta happens to her, in a way. It's defining someone who has — not naiveté as such as much as a kind of optimism about the world. When that gets blown apart by circumstances, she makes a very violent act of rebellion against it."