Duke Theater Studies @ Sheafer Theater
Through April 13

At the start of MACHINAL, an ensemble of young actors appears to be parsing lines of code instead of reading lines. But not to worry: In director Jules Odendahl-James’ vision of Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 play, they’re merely placing the brutal lockstep of that era’s gender-based social codes in high relief on a black-box theater stage.

The merciless rigidity of those societal algorithms becomes apparent as a central character known only as The Young Woman finds herself caught in the gears of big-city corporate culture. As an underpaid secretary, her dreams of freedom are circumscribed by having to support an unsympathetic mother and deal with a boss’ bewildering romantic advances. Marrying him sends her deeper into a cultural maze.

Actors Thomas Kavanagh, Tierney Marey and Roxana Martinez ably accessorize this nightmare, and Madeleine Pron strongly conveys the distress of the central character. But she’s already so traumatized at the beginning that little room is left for development as complications ensue. Still, the work ably depicts the plight of women, from more than one generation, who found no way out of a constricting web of social expectations.