Earnest men and women in Prohibition-era clothing march mechanically around a painted black square as a nervous young woman threads her way through them in the opposite direction. The implication is clear: Helen (Marni Penning) is a clockwise woman in a counterclockwise world. Playwright Sophie Treadwell wrote Machinal in 1928, inspired by the real-life murder of a suburban husband by his wife and her lover. But Helen’s story isn’t as simple as a homicidal run for greener pastures. Employed as a stenographer, the trim, diffident Helen attracts the attention of her boss, George (John C. Bailey), a stable, well-off man whose only sins are that he’s boring and has fat hands. Although the tightly wound Helen asks, “If love isn’t real, what can you count on in life?” she marries him anyway, to have the babies she dreams of and to ease the burden of supporting her insensitive mother. Inevitably, she will meet her downfall, in the form of Richard Roe (Carlos Bustamante), the handsome adventurer whose touch, unlike her husband’s, makes her purr. Director Lee Mikeska Gardner wrangles more than 30 characters in the American Century Theater’s production, creating the machine that surrounds Helen, the cog. As her co-workers discuss the possibility that the boss is popping the question, their dialogue becomes staccato and synchronous with the rhythm of their office machines—typewriter, adding machine, and switchboard. Pedestrians rush, then amble, then slow to a near freeze. Even at the moment she should be most happy, following the birth of her child, Helen is tormented by jackhammer noise, courtesy of sound designer Brian Mac Ian. Despite her desperate plea for independence, “I’ve submitted to enough—I’ll not submit any longer,” submit she finally must—to the machinery of the justice system. Penning plays Helen as high-strung almost from the beginning. As the pressures of her loveless marriage mount, she builds her tics, hand wringing, and hysteria into startled screams and the driving restlessness of a woman who perceives herself to have no alternatives. Bailey’s George balances this frenzy with old-fashioned paternalistic patronizing; Bustamante’s Richard delivers a credibly charming, seductive alternative. If modern audiences have a hard time swallowing Treadwell’s setup—Helen’s disastrous decision to marry George is only explained by a rhetorical question, “I have to marry somebody, right?”—they will not have trouble with her 1928 setting, elegantly evoked by Thomas B. Kennedy’s vintage office equipment and Michele Reisch’s cloche hats and silk stockings. But in the end, it’s Gardner’s stylized choreography that elevates Helen’s story to beautiful tragedy.—Janet Hopf