Molly's Hammer Is a Triumph at the Rep

Mar 16, 2016 at 5:00 am
Nancy Bell excels as Molly Rush.
Nancy Bell excels as Molly Rush. PHOTO BY JERRY NAUNHEIM JR.

People don't really talk about the A-bomb anymore, not like we used to. The big boogeyman had a 50-year-plus run, but now we have hijacked passenger planes, wild-eyed fanatics with rifles in crowded places and improvised explosive devices to worry about.

Reawakening our primal fear of the big blast is the first step Tammy Ryan has to take to get us invested in her historical drama, Molly's Hammer, which is now playing at the Repertory Theatre of Saint Louis. Ryan accomplishes it with a surprise detonation in the early minutes of the play, a guttural explosion followed by the familiar yellow-white mushroom cloud that blossoms malevolently on the set's pierced back wall. Isn't it strange how those beads of forehead sweat itch when they burst out of nowhere like that?

Molly's Hammer is based on the true story of Pittsburgh housewife Molly Rush, who was part of the Plowshares Eight, a group of anti-nuke activists who walked into a missile plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and whacked holes in two nose cones with a hammer. It is about a working-class husband and a homemaker wife trying to understand each other again after the child-raising years; it is about what normal people can accomplish when they fully engage with their civic responsibilities; and it is above all about a woman grappling with her faith and making the decision to undertake a spiritual journey that will require her to sacrifice something meaningful. Under the sensitive and clear direction of Seth Gordon, Molly's Hammer is a remarkable play that teaches you how to fear again in order to make you feel what's at risk if you don't take your chance to live.

Bill (Joe Osheroff) and Molly (Nancy Bell). - PHOTO BY JERRY NAUNHEIM JR.
Bill (Joe Osheroff) and Molly (Nancy Bell).

Nancy Bell plays Molly, mother of six and wife to Bill (Joe Osheroff), a plumbing systems engineer who lives for his various softball leagues. Lately she's been spending more time with Daniel Berrigan (Kevin Orton), a Catholic priest who works with his brother (also a priest) and a group of nuns to help the poor and disenfranchised of Pittsburgh.

The Berrigan brothers are also radical peace activists who fight for nuclear disarmament through various extralegal means. Molly admires their work and is inevitably drawn deeper into the movement. And while Bill's an old-school husband who thinks he can tell Molly to do something and she'll obey, that's not the case. Her talks with Daniel have opened her eyes to the horror of America's first-strike nuclear theory, which is the belief that if the U.S. nukes Russia first, some Americans will survive. The thought of her children having to grow up in a post-atomic wasteland terrifies her. She decides to take action, knowing that prison is a definite possibility and that she may lose her children and husband along the way.

Osheroff is very good as the husband who reluctantly learns how to believe in and support his wife the same way she believed in and supported him. The wordless moment when he throws away his fear and fully embraces her decision is as fine a depiction of an old love coming into new maturity as you're likely to see on any stage. Orton demonstrates his phenomenal versatility by creating all the other people in the play, too, from the Rushes' goofy and thoughtful son Greg, to Molly's heavily pregnant oldest daughter, to a cold-eyed company man on the witness stand.

Molly (Nancy Bell) and Fr. Berrigan (Kevin Orton) discuss how they'll dismantle the atomic bomb. - PHOTO BY JERRY NAUNHEIM JR.
Molly (Nancy Bell) and Fr. Berrigan (Kevin Orton) discuss how they'll dismantle the atomic bomb.

But this is Bell's triumph from start to finish. The actual attack on the missile factory comes at the end of the first act, and she tells the story of that night and morning in the unadorned language of a homily. She describes the stars in the autumnal sky, the quiet ride through darkened countryside, her fading apprehensions, the long walk into the factory and the dreamlike quality of seeing how mundane and non-threatening those engines of destruction looked in person. And then she drops the hammer and her whole world changes because she's really in it, really awake at last. Molly Rush's spiritual journey is complete, but her legal journey is yet to begin (in fact, it takes the entire second act).

The very best theater is a transformative experience that shakes you to your core and makes you feel something and think about the world a different way. Nancy Bell's great gift is the ability to capture your heart and take you with her in the footsteps of Molly Rush.

Molly's Hammer is a great gift. You'd be a fool to miss it.