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STAGE REVIEW

A murder, a playwright, and the creative process

From left: Craig Mathers, Anne Gottlieb, and Marianna Bassham in “Not Enough Air’’ at Central Square Theater. From left: Craig Mathers, Anne Gottlieb, and Marianna Bassham in “Not Enough Air’’ at Central Square Theater. (Elizabeth Stewart)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / February 17, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE - Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play, “Machinal,’’ is a masterpiece of American Expressionism that was nearly forgotten until the 1990s. With any luck, local playwright Masha Obolensky’s finely crafted play about “Machinal’’ and Treadwell, “Not Enough Air,’’ won’t suffer the same fate.

First produced last year in Chicago, “Not Enough Air’’ is making its New England debut in a mesmerizing production by the Nora Theatre Company at the Central Square Theater. Melia Bensussen directs Obolensky’s layered, acute study of women’s lives and the creative process with sensitivity and style. For audiences new to “Machinal,’’ it’s a fascinating introduction; for those already in the know, it’s an essential addition to the conversation about this truly classic work.

Treadwell, an American reporter and novelist as well as a playwright, was inspired to write “Machinal’’ after observing the sensational murder trial of Ruth Snyder, who was convicted of killing her husband with help from her lover and was sent to the electric chair. As “Not Enough Air’’ makes clear, however, “Machinal’’ is hardly a realistic treatment of Snyder’s life and death; not only did Treadwell draw on other women’s murder trials she had covered, but she also moved away from her earlier naturalistic style and into a strikingly modern, Expressionist form that is one of the play’s greatest strengths.

Fittingly, Obolensky too employs many Expressionist techniques to tell this story. Some scenes blur the line between reality and dream; characters are abstracted and exaggerated; dialogue is fractured and recombined. Snippets of text from “Machinal’’ itself recur, both in representations of the original production and in scenes of Treadwell’s development of the characters and their lives.

As in “Machinal,’’ scene changes are marked with quick blackouts and harsh mechanical sounds - designed with precision and power by John Malinowski and David Remedios, respectively. The actors push a few items - file cabinets, a desk, chairs, a bed - around Eric Levenson’s stripped-down set, and costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley’s carefully controlled palette and stylized period detail similarly add to the atmosphere of heightened but altered reality. All together, the design elements create a stunningly organic realization of Obolensky’s vision.

The actors, all but one playing multiple roles, bring each character to life with vivid specificity. Craig Mathers blends a touching affection and a blithely oblivious need for control as Mac, the sportswriter whom Treadwell married while (unusually for her time) maintaining a separate residence, life, and work schedule. He also joins effectively with the two other men in the cast, Grant MacDermott and Billy Meleady, to portray the detectives, reporters, and critics who analyze and judge both Ruth Snyder and Sophie Treadwell.

But it’s the women, of course, who are at the center of this story - not just Treadwell and Snyder, but the character one built out of the other, known both in “Machinal’’ and in “Not Enough Air’’ simply as Young Woman. Marianna Bassham brings an intense physicality and emotional transparency to this challenging creation, who provokes, cajoles, and inspires her creator. A scene in which she and Anne Gottlieb, as Treadwell, grapple and embrace creates a series of evocative images - sex and birth, torment and death - that’s as haunting as it is appropriate to the play’s themes of creativity and control.

Gottlieb, meanwhile, enters passionately into the complex psyche of Sophie Treadwell. An astonishingly strong woman - she was one of the first female war correspondents, and the only journalist granted an interview with Pancho Villa - Treadwell also suffered debilitating “fits’’ of what was diagnosed as neurasthenia. Gottlieb captures both the steel and the softness of this formidable character.

And then there’s Ruby Rose Fox as Ruth Snyder, the woman whose story set off all these interlocking layers of other women’s stories. She’s feisty, funny, and a little scary, and she’s also, ultimately, a mystery to us as well as to herself. That feels exactly right. For one of the many tasks that Obolensky sets herself, and accomplishes with grace, is to urge us to consider how women’s lives, in particular, are shaped and distorted by the perceptions of those who observe them.

“Not Enough Air’’ is not exactly Sophie Treadwell’s story, any more than “Machinal’’ was Ruth Snyder’s. But it is, as was the play that inspired it, a vital and necessary story of women fighting to breathe free.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

NOT ENOUGH AIR Play by Masha Obolensky

Directed by: Melia Bensussen. Set, Eric Levenson. Costumes, Gail Astrid Buckley. Lights, John Malinowski. Sound, David Remedios. Presented by Nora Theatre Company.

At: Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through March 14. Tickets: $35. 866-811-4111, www.centralsquaretheater.org