Monday, March 14, 2016

Review: "Molly's Hammer" strikes a blow for conscience at the Rep Studio, through March 27, 2016

L-R: Joe Osheroff and Nancy Bell
Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
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What's the price of compassion? What is the extent of a citizen's obligation to oppose fundamentally evil policies by a government? How much should one be expected to sacrifice for the common good?

These and many other questions are raised by The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production of Tammy Ryan's gripping drama Molly's Hammer. At a time when the very foundations of our political system are being openly challenged by the forces of fascism and hysterical fear, and when the leading candidates of one of our political parties are almost drooling with pleasure at the possibility of starting a nuclear war, these questions could not be more timely.

Based on Liane Ellison Norman's 1989 book Hammer of Justice: Molly Rush and The Plowshares Eight, Molly's Hammer is the story of the Pittsburgh housewife and mother of six who, along with seven other activists, including radical priest Daniel Berrigan, walked into a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, in 1980 and took a hammer to the nuclear warheads manufactured there.

Joe Osheroff
Photo: Jerry Naunhiem, Jr.
The act was symbolic—a realization of the call in Isaiah 2:3-4 to beat swords into plowshares—but the Federal government's response was not. Rush and her fellow activists were charged with more than ten different felony and misdemeanor counts. Rush herself spent 78 days in Pennsylvania jails until two Pittsburgh religious orders—the Sisters of Mercy and the Sister of St. Joseph—posted $125,000 bail. After ten years of legal battles Rush and her fellow activists were convicted on some of the less severe charges and sentenced to time served. Rush continues to be a peace activist.

Ms. Ryan's script concentrates on Rush's conflict with her less idealistic husband Bill and the agonizing choices she faces between her obligations to her family and her concern for the future of all families. Belligerent talk by political leaders about surviving a nuclear holocaust has her worried that her children might never live to see adulthood. Rush decides that she must do something to oppose the madness regardless of the personal cost.

Nancy Bell and Kevin Orton
Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Nancy Bell is an immediately sympathetic and credible Molly Rush. The character's occasional ideological outbursts could come across as strident and unrealistic, but Ms. Bell infuses them with the kind of simple sincerity which, I expect, the real Molly Rush must have felt.

Joe Osheroff is equally real as her baffled but ultimately loving husband, who goes on the longest psychological journey during the play. Staring with a seven-point plan to stop his wife from pursuing a course of action that he believes will destroy their lives, he eventually becomes her most loyal supporter, actively campaigning on her behalf. Mr. Osheroff makes his gradual change of heart believable and engaging.

All the other roles in the play are portrayed by Kevin Orton in a masterful display of physical and vocal acting techniques. In one remarkable scene he changes from Daniel Berrigan to Molly's 12 year old son in a matter of seconds with a quick alteration of vocal range and body language. Over the course of the play he takes on an wide variety of roles of different ages and sexes including, most impressively, a very pregnant friend of Molly's.

Seth Gordon's direction is clear and focused. Gianni Downs's simple set consists of a backdrop of boards attached to pipes—a reflection of Bill Rush's job in the plumbing business—with small set pieces that are easily pulled on and off, making the many scene changes quick and fluid. Mark Wilson's lights clearly delineate playing areas, and his pre show slide show of period activist images vividly evokes the anxieties of the era. Amada Werre's pre show mix of Bob Dylan classics completes the period feel.

Kevin Orton
Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends," observed John Stuart Mill in 1867, "than that good men should look on and do nothing." I can't speak for anyone else, but I came away from this production asking myself not "how could Molly Rush have done that" but rather "why haven't I done more?" This a first-rate production of a play which, if it punts the ultimate question of whether or not its heroine's sacrifice was really all that great or all that effective, nevertheless deserves to bee seen and debated.

Molly's Hammer continues through March 27 in the studio space at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. For more information, visit the Rep web site.

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