Nailing today’s issues: ‘Molly’s Hammer’ to open at East Nov. 6

Forget for a moment the setting of 1980 for the fictionalized story — one inspired by true events — in Columbus East High School’s latest production opening Nov. 6. Because cast members such as Henry Ulrich will tell you that the social justice fervor throughout “Molly’s Hammer” echoes with a distinct, modern-day feel.

The smaller show focuses from the opening scene on the horrors of possible nuclear war from that era, but the explosiveness of passionate protest and more feels like it was borrowed from today’s headlines.

“I do think that this show works to try and make people think and make connections between the past events of our history and what is currently going on,” Ulrich said. “That’s one reason why this is such a good show during these times, because it can really make people think.

“And it’s also educational, and gets people involved in the idea of trying to enact changes.”

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Some might say it does so as subtly as the nuclear warheads that figure directly into the storyline, which is done reader’s theater style.

According to online summaries, Molly Rush, a Pittsburgh housewife and mother of six, walked into a General Electric Co. plant in 1980 in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and took a hammer to the nose cone of a intercontinental ballistic missile in protest of the buildup of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. She and her fellow activists, called “The Plowshares Eight,” including husband Bill Rush (played in some performances by Ulrich) and Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan, who went to trial to sound the alarm over the possibility of nuclear annihilation.

Activist Hammer, still alive at age 88, also went to jail for 11 weeks.

Playwright Tammy Ryan’s “Molly’s Hammer” is inspired by the book “Hammer of Justice,” by Liane Ellison Norman. Told with humor and love through the competing narratives of Molly Rush and her working-class husband, Bill, the play “shines a light on how the choice of ordinary people to take action is what is needed to save our world,” according to dramaticpublishing.com.

The production, featuring only three main characters — the Rushes and Berrigan — is the perfect size for a show amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said director Kevin Welsh. To involve more students, the six total shows spread over two weekends will be shared by three different casts — also a way of having a backup plan in case someone were to become ill, through rehearsals have featured ample social distancing on stage and masks.

And Welsh believes that cast members must be in part even more expressive actors “with maybe a little physicality” as they read from their scripts in order to make the characters real.

“This definitely exposes students to a different style of theater,” Welsh said. “One of the beauties of theater is that we learn to adapt to whatever problems that we’re faced with. One of the things I teach is that theater is about problem solving, and here we have a problem, so let’s solve it.”

Actress Ema Westerfield, who plays Molly Rush in some of the shows, mentioned that if young people seem more aware of social justice developments than a previous generation or so, the ease of technology figures in partly.

“I think we have more of a chance to pay attention to issues today because we have so much more (media) access,” Westerfield said. “And I’ve been paying extra attention lately because I just turned 18, and I am now a first-time, registered voter.”

And though Molly Rush boldly swung a hammer to emphatically make her point in real life, the cast is avoiding even the simplest of props to avoid any possibility of coronavirus infection. So will Westerfield even need such extras if she sufficiently nails her character’s determination?

She chuckled.

“I hope not,” Westerfield said.

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What: Columbus East High School’s presentation of the reader’s theater style production of "Molly’s Hammer." The show, inspired by a true story, highlights the activism of Pennsylvania activist Molly Rush, who protested the possibility of nuclear war by taking a hammer to an intercontinental ballistic missile.

When: 7 p.m. Nov. 6, 7, 14 and 14. And at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 8 and 15.

Where: The school’s refurbished and socially distanced Clarence E. Robbins Auditorium at 230 S. Marr Road. Only about 100 audience members will be admitted for each of the six performances.

Tickets: Available at columbuseasths.seatyourself.biz

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