What does it mean to seek freedom? In an effort to try to find her own freedom, Helen — the central character of the UCSC theater department’s production of the noir crime drama “Machinal” — rebels against societal restrictions constraining her due to her gender.

Inspired by the real-life murderer Ruth Snyder, who was executed in Sing Sing Prison in 1928 for killing her husband, Helen is a young woman who largely lived a life dictated by others. In order to remain financially stable, she marries her boss, but over the years the pressures of society wear on her until she experiences a mental breakdown with dire consequences.

In “Machinal,” Helen is played by three actresses who portray the young woman in different stages of her life. Nicole Menez, who portrays Helen in her early years, captures her youthful optimism, radiance and innocence. Emily Schneiderman portrays Helen as a new mother who is slowly crushing under the pressure to be the perfect housewife. Finally, Katie Burris plays Helen as she grapples with her impending execution.

The play focuses primarily upon social issues affecting the woman of the 1920s, but Menez said the play’s themes relate to feminist issues of any time period.

“She feels stifled by the machine of society because she wants to live outside of it,” Menez said. “She wants to make her own decisions, but her decisions have already been made for her. She attempts to conform to the machine, but she can’t. She doesn’t fit in.”

Much of the play’s themes revolve around comparing society to a machine — even the name of the play, “Machinal,” is French for “mechanical.” Menez said the machine in question references the pressure placed on members of society to conform to the status quo.

“She wants to be free to make her own decisions,” Menez said, “to feel a sense of love and life and not be constricted or confined by anything.”

Many members of the audience came to support family and friends, like Sally Kramer, who flew in from Maryland to see her grandson perform in the play. She and her friends expressed amazement at the grit and honesty of the play.

“We were all saying if we tried this in high school, they would have kicked us out,” Kramer said. “I just thought they did a great job.”

The play tackled some difficult issues such as relationships, sexuality and feminism. Every scene of the play adds a new layer to the Molotov cocktail of Helen’s life, including a stressful pregnancy and a loveless marriage.

“Everybody adds more things to make the machine work, but at the same time pushes the young woman to her limits,” Menez said.

Audience member Ethan Mahoney, a second-year from College Nine, said the meaning of the play wasn’t lost on him.

“It tackled the difference between what somebody wants to be, and what somebody else wants them to be,” Mahoney said.

For Menez, Helen’s struggle to break free from the restrictions placed upon her by others was deeply relatable.

“Her desire for freedom was an idea that wasn’t new to me before we started this,” Menez said. “It’s made me grateful that I can make decisions for myself. It also makes me think about what parts of my own life I don’t realize are my own decisions.”