Mark McGoldrick’s one-man play, The Golden Hammer, was like a greased monkey. To grasp the two-act show’s truths too tightly was to risk losing the entire animal. But if held in the same sure-grip style of McGoldrick’s simple storytelling — without props and reliant entirely on a versatile voice, expressive face, ever-moving hands and intriguing plot lines — the action could be anchored.
When he’s not on stage, McGoldrick is an assistant public defender in Alameda County. The Golden Hammer is a remount of a 2005 show he first performed at The Marsh in San Francisco, and is currently running at The Marsh in Berkeley through November 20. It has McGoldrick portraying scenes from his adolescence and life as a public defender. Set in 1970s Arizona, the Yukon wilderness, and Oakland’s criminal courts, the characters include a rebellious teenager, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans, indigent defendants, judges, rightly and wrongly accused child molesters, protective parents, men on canoe adventures, and the prosecutors and defenders who serve the public in criminal courtrooms.
During the play’s two-hour span, the fallible frame of memory and eyewitness testimony bred false recollections, implicit bias and bad judgment produced unfair assumptions of crooked lives, and the ideally crisp line dividing innocence from guilt blurred into a smeary smudge. If McGoldrick sometimes left loose threads — no wrapping the day’s law enforcement and legal work into a tidy bundle in the style of Blue Bloods or Law and Order — it was intentional. Uncertainty, where justice is concerned, was all we could rely on, and to think otherwise would have been to play the fool.
Even so, the play was by no means a downer. It was often funny, touching, and ironically lighthearted in direct contrast to the characters’ dark despair and deepest displays of self-destruction. Directed by David Ford and written by McGoldrick, sound design lightened and energized the mood, with classic rock clips from the songs of Led Zeppelin, Warren Zevon, The Doors, Tom Waits, and others. More than anything, McGoldrick was a compelling performer whose compassion for the real-life clients he represents was obvious even as he described the culpability and criminality of their theatrical counterparts.
McGoldrick was most effective in the telling of a fourteen-year-old’s exploitation by his weed-smoking, sexual predator boss. In the rat hole Golden Hammer auto-shop warehouse, the boss taunts his young hires with cocaine-dusted fifty-dollar bills and Maserati rides before dressing them in short-shorts — “uniforms” — and forcing them to pose for photos with classic cars. McGoldrick was remarkable in portraying the anguish and confusion of a manipulated young boy still reaching to define his sexual identity.
Although never formerly trained as an actor, performing in front of a jury has equipped McGoldrick with a sophisticated understanding of the physicality and timing involved. The fact that he pinpointed such a variety of characters while seated in the wheelchair he has used ever since age seventeen, made it even more impressive.
In the next scene, McGoldrick played his public defender self sitting in a canoe with George, a Vietnam vet with a “messed up leg” and few, slowly-spoken words. Although it was believable that a conversation between two men in a boat would realistically have long silences, a faster pace would have been more dynamic.
But the scenes in which McGoldrick plays himself defending Henry, a man brought down despite insufficient evidence by an eight-year-old girl’s “it hurted” testimony, were gripping. Mark pulls twelve jurors from a panel of eighty people “who don’t want to be there” and who resemble “a Twelve Angry Men casting call.” McGoldrick switched between characterizing the client, young girl, jurors, and public defender with deft skill and a genuineness that didn’t rely on typical, theatrical tricks — such as donning a hat or lowering the pitch of your voice.
Final scenes had McGoldrick questioning the law’s margin of error and subjective human beings’ ability to prove innocence or guilt objectively. The Golden Hammer didn’t answer all of the questions or resolve the conflicts presented: It lobbed the issues back into the audience’s court and let them depart feeling compelled to consider justice and the laws meant to protect it.