Not Enough Air
Cultural assumptions about the social, family, and professional roles of women can be irritating even today--so imagine how oppressive they must have felt decades ago: maddening, crushing, suffocating. The sense of walls closing in (and of overbearing masculinity) propels The Nora Theatre Company’s production of Not Enough Air, playing through March 14 at the Central Square Theater.
This play is, in a sense, the direct descendant of an earlier work, Machinal, written by Sophie Treadwell, who is depicted here as the central character. Not Enough Air examines how Treadwell came to write Machinal; but more to the point, it holds up a lens to gender norms and prejudices that are still largely intact. When we meet Sophie Treadwell (Anne Gottlieb), she’s taking in the reviews of Machinal, which is based on the murder of a man by his wife and her lover. It’s the 1920s, but Treadwell--who is also a newspaper reporter--has authored a proto-feminist work that dares to ask the questions the male-dominated media never thinks to consider. For example: could a husband’s murder, even with the help of a cheating wife’s lover, actually be considered a form of self-defense?
We don’t quite know what Machinal is about or where Sophie is coming from at first: the voices of critics whirl through her mind (in a forthright and effective bit of staging, men wheel filing cabinets around the set as they bark out critical plaudits), with exclamations on the "brilliant!" and "ground breaking!" play being offset by condescending remarks about female writers. Then the action snaps back in time to the origins of Treadwell’s play: breaking news about the murder, which soon grows into a national sensation. The investigation into suspect Ruth Snyder (Ruby Rose Fox) and her accomplice Judd Gray (Grant MacDermott) excites the press room at Sophie’s paper, but Sophie is not assigned to cover the story; she’s just recovering from a breakdown brought on by overwork. Her young male colleague Jonathon (MacDermott once again) has been given the assignment, to Sophie’s dismay.
But when Sophie encounters Ruth, she’s ready to hear all about the events that led to Mr. Snyder’s bludgeoning death. Ruth is wary: "You know what you want from me," she says accusingly. "You wanna have some of me for yourself--just like the rest of them." The words sting, lodging in Sophie’s mind (they recur later on), because Sophie does want a piece of Ruth: she knows she’s caught a thread of something, and it’s not just the tabloid fodder of a murder that has caught the public’s imagination. As Ruby grows into a larger-than-life figure of malice, menace, and murder in the public’s eyes, Sophie delves into the details of the testimony offered at Ruby’s trial: Ruby’s panic attacks, or "fits," and her husband’s episodes of temper. Why is no one looking at these things? Why are they simply varnished over or dismissed when the prosecution calls, "Objection!"?
Moreover, how is it that Ruby has come to be identified with--almost conflated with--women from earlier, similar murder cases? "She’s crazy, she’s greedy, she’s selfish," Jonathan tells Sophie. "They’re all alike!"
If these women are indeed all alike, Sophie wonders, then maybe there’s more to it than the depiction of female monstrosity splashed across the papers--the "defiance" that the press claims is written on Ruth’s face. If Ruth and other women accused of murdering their men have upset the social apple cart, perhaps they have similar reasons--and maybe those reasons go beyond insurance money and handsome gigolos. And if these women are indeed to be conflated into one over-arcing archetype, why should it be of the homicidal harpy? Sophie arrives at an archetype of her own: the Young Woman, a being that is bullied, harassed, and denatured into submission--or into mentally snapping, at which point violence is sure to be a result.
The Young Woman becomes Sophie’s touchstone, and her Muse; she takes on a personification (Marianna Bassham) so detailed and urgent to Sophie that she takes visible form. As Sophie writes and re-writes a re-creation of events, the Young Woman dutifully plays her part--and then watches, reacts, and eventually begins to press for Sophie to concentrate more fully on her creative process and bring the Young Woman to life through a new play that will examine her side of the story.
That internal pressure conflicts with the demands and expectations put on Sophie by her lover, Mac (Craig Mathers), a sports writer at the same paper. Mac and Sophie regard themselves as a "modern" couple: they eschew marriage, but have drawn up a marriage-like contract by which to abide. Mac admires Sophie as an "extraordinary individual," and speaks of her need to live in an "extraordinary manner," which he is willing, mostly, to accommodate; but when it comes to Sophie’s availability, he tends toward jealousy; and when it comes to matters of her physical and mental health, he’s on guard, not trusting that she can tend to her own needs, especially in light of her earlier collapse.
Local playwright Masha Obolensky tackles a large and complicated subject with confidence, twining the play’s meanings and affects together into complex layers. The result is chilling, perplexing, and provocative. The play is dramatic, but offers some dazzling comic touches, as when Sophie, feeling cornered by both Mac and the Young Woman, argues with both of them at once, her words directed at Mac--meant for each of them in different ways. At another point, both Mac and the Young Woman grab her by the hand and try to steer her off--in two opposite directions. The sight gag is funny, but the emotional turbulence it plays on is all too recognizable.
The play’s most crucial subject matter, however, is that which is only hinted at: is Obolensky defending the stereotype that women are emotionally and psychologically weaker than men? Is she mounting a counter-argument? Or is she asking us to understand that if women snap under the stress of being expect to comply with men’s wishes, it’s because that compliance in itself is an extraordinary burden? Treadwell did suffer breakdowns: were they due to an inability to bear up under stress, or because she was so resentful of the way women were infantilized, and then demonized if they sought to assert themselves? Or were her own "fits" part and parcel of her creativity, as with so many other brilliant people?
In any case, Sophie is assailed with conflicting loyalties: to Mac, to her profession, to her gender, and to larger truths that are obscured by the sensational, but shallow, facts of the murder case. The exquisite sound design by David Remedios makes Sophie’s internal conflict immediate and viscerally accessible to the audience; John Malinowski’s lighting design evokes the chaos of the emotional landscape Sophie must navigate, with pools of light acting as points along her intellectual journey and spotlights tracking her as she makes her way through the conceptual thickets.
Eric Levenson’s set is deceptively simple: filing cabinets everywhere, stacks of newspapers, and a second level provided by a catwalk that allows Sophie the occasional retreat for a literal overview of the complicated, colliding issues she’s sorting out. Natalie Kearns has populated the set with period-specific props--vintage radios, a manual typewriter--that speak to the essential theme of how the individual voice can be drowned out in a barrage (plus ca change, as they say). But it’s director Melia Bensussen who puts the pieces together into an intricate clockwork of moving parts: a script this complicated requires careful staging, which Bensussen provides without dousing the sparks of humor, humanity, and spontaneity that her cast throw off.
The play’s East Coast premiere is poised to match the success of its Chicago run last year: it the kind of play that asks tough questions, and gets people talking--and thinking.
Not Enough Air continues through March 14 at Central Square Theatre, located at 450 MAssachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.
Tickets cost $35 general admission; $25 for seniors. Students pay $20, valid ID required. Student rush tickets cost $15 for same-day performances. Tickets can be obtained online at www.centralsquaretheater.org or via phone at 866-811-4111.
Performance schedule: Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m.; Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. For a schedule of post-performance talkbacks and other events, see the theater’s Web site: www.centralsquaretheater.org