Story: In 2006 a local milkman walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He ordered the teacher and male students to leave, then barricaded himself and 10 girl students in a room, where he systematically shot each of them in the head before killing himself.
Playwright Jessica Dickey’s one-woman drama is a fictionalized account of that horrific incident and the subsequent forgiveness of the killer by the Amish parents of his victims, who even comforted his grieving widow in an amazing display of their faith and devotion to God.
Highlights: Kicking off its ninth season of works that explore issues of faith and social justice, Mustard Seed Theatre delivers a powerful, profoundly moving interpretation of Dickey’s heart-rending story. With artistic director Deanna Jent’s carefully crafted guidance and Amy Loui’s luminous portrayal of seven different characters, The Amish Project sets the bar high for upcoming productions in the 2015-16 theater season.
Other Info: Dickey took on the acting assignment in the premiere production of The Amish Project in 2009 in Connecticut. I can’t comment on her performance, but her research about the real Nickel Mines mass murder resulted in an immensely affecting story about an unspeakable crime and the remarkable response by the Amish community in forgiving the perpetrator and then consoling his family.
Her one-act, 90-minute story is impeccably performed by Loui, who literally changes from character to character in a split second, never wavering in her differentiation of the various roles. She begins the evening as one of the younger girls in the school, who paints a vivid picture of her home life with her mother, father, brother and older sister.
She’s a typical little girl, full of love and happiness and dreams and wonder about the world. She uses the mammoth chalkboard behind her to draw simple pictures of her family while she tells us about their way of life in disarming fashion, showing us how putting “Others” between Jesus and “You” leads to “JOY.”
Gradually we move away from the schoolhouse to a podium at stage left, where a professor named Bill conducts an impromptu news conference following the killings. Loui assumes the role of a middle-age man who has studied Amish culture for more than 20 years. He yearns to instruct the media about the genuine warmth and compassion of people whose ancestors escaped persecution in Europe, coming to America to live their lives simply and devoutly.
Loui slips seemingly effortlessly into the roles of the killer’s anguished wife; an under-educated woman in the community whose vile rage is uncontrolled after watching news of the incident; a young Puerto Rican waitress, ironically named America, who herself deals with the prejudices of the ignorant in the village on a regular basis; another young student at the school; and the psychologically twisted killer himself.
Throughout her exhaustive portrayal, Loui maintains a superior level of acting, a remarkable performance that remains poignant and intelligent, always nurtured by Jent’s appreciation for the playwright’s insightful material and the performer’s mesmerizing abilities.
Dickey is careful to point out that her work is fiction. Reading about the actual incident, however, one can see where she has picked up tender scenes and refined them with dramatic license, such as where two students heroically encourage shooter Eddie to “kill me first” followed by “kill me second.” In the actual incident, five of the 10 girls died, although the implication in the play is that all of them perished. Either way, it’s a grisly factual story upon which Dickey builds her absorbing drama.
Kyra Bishop adds to the effect with a scenic design dominated by that large chalkboard in the back and a plank floor, a simple, one-piece desk at stage right and the podium at stage left, all bracketed by a child-like painting of a cheerful outdoor setting that belies the terror in the schoolhouse.
Jane Sullivan’s costume design pays homage to the traditional Amish garb and Michael Sullivan lights everything poignantly. Zoe Sullivan complements the sad yet uplifting story with her sound design and Meg Brinkley adds props. Richard Lewis serves efficiently as Loui’s voice and dialect coach.
The title of The Amish Project might refer to the playwright’s effort or to how the victims’ families put their faith into inspiring practice as they forgave Eddie and consoled his family. Either way, The Amish Project is achingly affecting and an unforgettable theatrical experience.
Play: The Amish Project
Company: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, Big Bend at Wydown
Dates: September 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 12, 13
Tickets: $25-$30 (or Pay with a Can/Pay What You Can on Thursdays); contact 719-8060 or www.mustardseedtheatre.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb