In 1963, Madalyn Murray O'Hare was a party in the lawsuit that helped remove prayer from America's schools. Calling herself THE atheist, she reveled in her self-proclaimed status as "the most hated woman in America." By the late '60s she was a national celebrity, her several atheist organizations raking in money from the disaffected. By the '90s, however, elderly and in poor health, she and her two closest allies, her granddaughter Robin and her son Jon, were embroiled in lawsuits and tax difficulties. In August of 1995 the three of them disappeared. Over the next few weeks, they spoke with officials from their atheist organizations, desperately gathering money ($600,000 to be exact), and after September 30 they were never heard from again.
Set in a San Antonio motel room where the O'Hares are held captive by a disgruntled former employee, Beatrice Terry's imaginative and gripping Over A Barrel explores the last days of "the most hated woman in America." In imagining O'Hare's thoughts during that month of captivity, Terry examines both sides of a very thorny issue: religious belief vs. personal faith. That she comes up with no clear-cut answer is no surprise, but the points she makes are relevant, venomous, and dead-on accurate. Her Act One closing line sums it all up: in a hallucinatory conversation with the God she doesn't believe in, O'Hare is asked point-blank: "Without God, where would Madalyn Murray O'Hare be?" This point, and the fact that her own business dealings are as crooked as the church she so cheerfully denounces, propels the play into that rarified strata of political theatre that blames, provokes, and entertains all at once. If Over A Barrel does fall apart somewhat in its anticlimactic second half (it might work better as a full-length one-act), Terry's play nevertheless scores a bulls-eye where it counts the most: she forces her audience to think about faith and what it means to them, both individually and as members of the human race.
As director of her own work, Terry was no less successful. The production moved at an electrically charged pace, helped enormously by the terrific cast she assembled. It was truly an ensemble effort, and all deserved kudos for their contributions: Jonas Abry, Stephen Bel Davies, Matthew Bray, Todd Butera, Scott Drummond, David Heckel, Gretchen Michelfeld, and Kelly Murphy all gave performances of explosive energy and chilling depth, particularly Abry, Michelfeld, and Murphy as the dysfunctional O'Hares and Bray as their vicious chief tormentor.
Robert Redmond's evocation of a cheap residential hotel room was nearly perfect, marred only by a badly painted backdrop seen through the room's single window. Abby Smith's costumes and Michael Abram's lighting were unobtrusive, doing their jobs well but without undue flash.
Over A Barrel doesn't always work, but when it does, it packs quite a wallop. It should be seen by anyone interested in hearing the nascent voice of a playwright who has her finger on the pulse of this crazy, wonderful, fucked-up country.
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Copyright 2001 Doug DeVita