'Molly's Hammer' Tells A Wonderful Story In The Midst of Armageddon

By Richard Green
In Culture

You can’t get much more serious than nuclear armageddon as a theme for a play—but Nancy Bell (as Molly) makes all those projections of mushroom clouds on stage a matter of down-to-earth thoughtfulness, in this surprisingly wonderful story.

In “Molly’s Hammer,” our heroine joins up with the Plowshares Movement for a dramatic gesture to protest nuclear arms, in a two-hour show that boasts a very unexpected ace-in-the-hole.

Nancy Bell. Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Nancy Bell. Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

And that ace, in this world-premiere production, is in the casting:

Bell, as leading lady Molly Rush, just happens to be a rangy, idealistic redhead playing opposite Joe Osheroff as her husband, Bill: a sawed-off factory worker, ready to cut her down to size when necessary. If you’re over 50, you will be forgiven for instantly “misapprehending” the whole thing as one of Hollywood’s best-loved film duos, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, reunited to grapple with yet another Great Social Issue. (But in their nine movies together, the great social issue was almost always the empowerment—or disempowerment—of women.)

Of course, Ms. Bell and Mr. Osheroff avoid the mannerisms of either film legend. But just as their physical shapes match Hepburn and Tracy, the rebellious streak in “Molly’s Hammer” also generally conforms to that of “Adam’s Rib” or “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.” Here (in New Jersey in 1981), a harebrained scheme to destroy nuclear warheads leads to a heart-wrenching courtroom challenge to Doomsday itself.

The Rep’s Associate Artistic Director, Seth Gordon, directs. He keeps the mood light and straightforward, in spite of the ghostly projections of World War III against the backdrop. There are also personal melt-downs in cars, and Molly’s unyielding faith in her own power of reason is strangely breathtaking. But gradually the mood of a husband and wife just getting through life together wins the day.

If it was a conscious decision, it’s very clever to put it all into the context of something like “Desk Set,” with Tracy and Hepburn in danger of being swept aside by cold historical inevitabilities. Kevin Orton is the third actor on stage, adding a dash of Tom Ewell-style comedy at regular intervals.

A quiet success, unleashing warmth and light and energy from an alternate Hollywood universe, and speaking of the darkest inhuman possibilities in the idealistic language of film romance. By Tammy Ryan, based on “Hammer Of Justice” by Liane Ellison Norman.

At the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through March 27, 2016.

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