Review of Big Machine at COCA

    Colin Healy has done his Linn-Manuel thing, writing book, music, and lyrics for his latest musical, and drawing on American history for his source. He hasn’t gone as far back as the American Revolution, or to 19th century St. Louis where he set his last creation, Madam, about a woman who ran a brothel and became the richest woman here. He set Big Machine, recently at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA), in the 1920s. Automobiles were taking over the streets and highways of America, and the manufacturers of automobiles were searching for anything that could give them an edge on the competition.

    We meet three historical figures, Charles Kettering, Thomas Midgley, and Charles Allen Thomas, who worked for General Motors. They conducted dozens of experiments searching for something that could be added to gasoline to make cars run better. Eventually they succeed with a compound called tetraethyl lead. As the name suggests, it has lead in it. Lead is a poison. The men knew this. They knew that some lead dust would spread from the automobile exhaust. It would cause problems for people who inhaled it. General Motors’ problem was to convince the public that ethyl gasoline, as it was called, was safe.

    Set Designer Laura Skroska created a factory where tetraethyl lead is manufactured as her impressive set for Big Machine, with upper-level platforms and catwalks crossing it upstage. The chemists’ small laboratory was down right. Down left was part of the home of factory workers. Junior was too young to work in the factory, but the family needed the money, and the manager of the factory gave him a job because he had known the boy’s late father. Junior’s sister Grace also worked in the factory. She and some other workers become concerned about the illnesses suffered by those working with the lead. 

    A problem for Big Machine comes from all those stories about scientists — novels, biographies, plays, movies, TV shows. They usually reach a climax when the scientists succeed in their quest, solve the problem, make the invention work. We identify with the scientists, we’re pulling for them. And I think the same thing happens in Big Machine. We meet scientists struggling with a problem, and we want them to solve it. It takes a lot of vomiting by the workers to persuade us that those scientists are the villains of the piece, and our sympathies should be with the workers. 

    Under director Nancy Bell, the cast at COCA is strong. Parker Collier is a sympathetic Junior, as is Laila Varner as his sister Grace. Colin McLaughlin plays Charles Kettering, Matt Billings is Thomas Midgley, and Bradford Rolen is Charles Thomas. Miles Brenton is often a sympathetic character as the factory manager. Other workers and their families are played by Brea Johnson, Laine Auffenberg, Lauren Perry, Kaitlin Oliver, Lizi Watt, and Michael Thanh Tran. Another eight form a Cadillac of an ensemble.

    Music Director Jermaine Manor brought out the strengths in Healy’s score. Shevare Perry designed costumes, Jayson Lawshee the lighting, AhSa-Ti Nu Tyehimba-Ford the sound, and Eddie Teshara the projections. Choreography was by C. Anthony Cole, fight choreography by Michael Piece, and Cameron Tyler was movement director and Associate Director. Delaney Piggins was the dramaturg.

    In Big Machine, Colin Healy has again constructed a well-crafted work. COCA gave it a sympathetic production.

    —Bob Wilcox

    Photo by Phillip Hamer, Courtesy of COCA