'Hatchet Lady' rocks out to weapon-wielding anti-booze bad-ass Carrie Nation

Maren Ward unhinges as Carrie Nation.

Maren Ward unhinges as Carrie Nation. Amy Rummenie

Local theater artists have reacted in varying ways to these apocalyptic times, but none, perhaps, have summoned an image so majestically apt as Maren Ward astride a team of silver-maned horses, waving a hatchet and bellowing about destruction while smoke billows and a rock band thunders behind her.

Hatchet Lady

Red Eye Theater

Who is this woman, and what's her beef? The first question is easy to answer — her name is Carrie Nation — but the second one is a little more complicated.

Therein lies a tale, and fortunately the tale is told by playwright Savannah Reich in the witty rock musical Hatchet Lady. Reich has been responsible for some of the smartest, most original new plays seen in the Twin Cities over the past decade (Dalí's Liquid Ladies, Fanciness Vs. The Void); she's now based in Chicago, where Hatchet Lady premiered earlier this year at Runaways Lab Theatre.

The rock musical was developed as part of Walking Shadow Theatre Company's Script Pitch Program, and Walking Shadow is now presenting the completed show at Red Eye Theater under the direction of John Heimbuch. Set designer Steve Kath has adapted the space by screening off the rows of standard seating and moving the audience onstage, where chairs surround a smaller stage and the production routinely spills over into the aisles. When the four-member band amps up for composer Luc Parker's rumbling anthems, you feel it in your sternum.

Nation was a real person, a radical American temperance activist who found infamy at the turn of the 20th century by attacking taverns with a hatchet. She's the kind of fascinating but neglected historical figure whose acclaimed biography might be recommended to your book club. That's exactly the volume that a character named Frances (also played by Ward), an author in the present day, is writing as Hatchet Lady begins.

A radio interviewer (Megan Burns) presses Frances to explain Carrie Nation. What was the hatchet lady's significance? It's a softball question, but Frances struggles to answer. Her specialty is interpreting feminist icons like Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt, but for some reason she's balking at rationalizing Nation's violent sprees. She can't finish her final chapter, and her publisher dispatches a worshipful intern (Maureen O'Malley) to coax the frustrated Frances.

Past bleeds into present, and the "angel of destruction" comes alive in multiple senses as Frances starts to understand that Nation's radical example demands action, not words. Reich's signal gift is to combine daring arguments with a sure sense of theatricality and a generous trust in her collaborators. Ward rewards that trust with a triumphant performance. She embraces her challenge, which is to communicate searing passion throughout a play that constantly problematizes her motivations. By the cathartic climax, the audience is practically on its feet.

While the songs themselves aren't particularly memorable, the aesthetic is perfectly apt for this story of a woman who fights for the right to be unknowable. Rock stars don't demand intellectualization — they resist it. There's a reason they call their guitars "axes."