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Molly’s Hammer
by Tammy Ryan
Based on the book Hammer of Justice by Liane Ellison Norman
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 11, 2016

Joe Osheroff, Nancy Bell Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Joe Osheroff, Nancy Bell
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Cold War was tense time in American history, and it’s one I remember first-hand, at least to a degree. The threat of nuclear war and the generalized looming sense of dread it created is something I remember well from my childhood and teen years. Molly’s Hammer, a new play currently being presented at the Rep Studio, focuses on the anti-nuclear protest movement that developed as a result of this general threat of war to which the stockpiling of nuclear weapons contributed. Focusing on one key figure in this movement, the play seeks to present a personalized account of this movement and, for the most part, it succeeds.

Molly Rush (Nancy Bell) was a Pittsburgh area housewife who had been involved in various Catholic-led activist movements. This three-person play focuses on her increasing involvement in the opposition to nuclear weapons and her involvement with a protest action led by Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan (Kevin Orton, who plays many roles in this production), along with his brother and others. They formed a group known as the Plowshares Eight, and their protest action at a Pennsylvania General Electric plant in 1980 serves as the central focus of this production, including the events leading up to the action and its aftermath. The play also highlights the relationship between Rush and her husband Bill (Jose Osheroff), who loves Molly but isn’t sure what to think about her increasingly activist ways, especially when the threat of imprisonment and separation from him and their children becomes more and more likely.

This is an ambitious, inventively structured play, with two performers playing one role each and one performer (Orton) performing a variety of roles with no costume changes to indicate the variations of character. In fact, Orton’s performance is the most impressive simply because it depends so much on body language and line delivery. His portrayals of everyone from Daniel Berrigan to the Rushes’ various sons, daughters, and other family members as well as other activists, a judge, a female prison guard, and more are made convincing due to Orton’s clarity of performance. Bell turns in a fine performance as Molly, as well, portraying her determination and zeal for her cause in a thoughtful manner, and Osheroff is equally convincing as the conflicted but loving Bill, whose mission to convince Molly to temper her activist tendencies doesn’t go exactly as planned.

The structure of this play is at times confusing and also a little on the talky side. There’s a lot of talking about things that are about to happen, and a generally linear timeline that occasionally gets interrupted with a flashback, although there aren’t enough of these flashbacks to justify them, and they come across as interfering with the forward progress of the plot rather than augmenting it. Also, the staging can get cluttered with stagehands running on and off stage to change the scene, as Gianni Downs’ scene design mostly consists of a generalized backdrop with set pieces that are moved into place as needed, and sometimes these quick scene changes can come across as frantic and distracting. Aside from the set, there’s a good use of lighting and projections by Mark Wilson, and authentic looking early 1980’s costumes by Lou Bird.

Molly’s Hammer is an intriguing play about an important era of American History and a protest movement that generally isn’t talked about as much as others. Its a thought-provoking play led by an amiable cast, although the staging is sometimes muddled. Still, the performances and generally authentic evocation of the era make this show entertaining, educational, and worth seeing.

Nancy Bell, Kevin Orton Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nancy Bell, Kevin Orton
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Molly’s Hammer runs at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s Studio Theatre until March 27, 2016.

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