For a show representing a fictionalized account of an event that occurred nearly ten years ago, it is breathtaking how relevant Jessica Dickey’s The Amish Project is to current affairs. Based upon the shooting in Nickel Pines, PA in October of 2006, this one-person show explores the the effects the shooting had on the community and how people dealt with such a senseless tragedy. Dickey negotiates complicated layers created by two Amish girls, the widow of the shooter, a resident of Nickel Mines, a professor of Amish culture, a young woman working in the town, and the shooter himself, performing each character with clarity and honesty.
Wrapped up into this delicate play are deep considerations of loss, grief, hatred, anger, fear, and forgiveness. Centering around not the horrific act itself but the aftermath of Carol, the gunman’s widow, being changed by the kindness and forgiveness the Amish community shows her, the play doesn’t attempt to ask, “Why did this occur?” (noting at one point that the Amish don’t ask this question). Instead, it pinpoints this pivotal moment, a situation that Dickey described as, “a radical act in the face of unimaginable violence.” Carol, who has been consumed with pain at being called the wife of a “sicko” in the supermarket finds it unbelievable that the victims’ families are able to not only forgive her but comfort her and help her. Though “darkness ate him [her husband]… and now it’s eating me” and she believes she lives in a world where she’s “two days from sicko” herself, Carol is transcended by this act, pushing her from a world where tragedy that happens everyday somehow coexists with incredible kindness and gentleness.
Dickey’s impulse to fictionalize rather than realize the events this story is based on feels right, to leave the Amish to their privacy and to avoid any chance of sensationalizing this tragedy. A space is then created where the issues of broadcasting and media, questioning beliefs of all kinds, and considering forgiveness of an unknown gunman can be fully considered without a constant referral to actual people. We can leave what we personally know about the event behind and enter Dickey’s world, to share Carol’s wonder at how it is possible to believe anything at all while also understanding young Velda’s view of joy, a six-year-old Amish girl who simply believes that joy stands for Jesus, others, and putting yourself last. Faith and religion are a running narrative throughout the show but regardless of one’s background and beliefs, the themes are poignant and compassionate. It is rare that work dealing with spiritual ideas avoid feeling exclusionary but this one manages to do it not only well but with great poignancy. As an audience member described, the force of the ensemble allows the audience to feel a part of the show and this allows a sort of dialogue to take place through powerful moments of silence and realization.
The imagery of this show is also powerful: through lighting, set, and staging with Dickey’s physical movements, and also in the images painted by dialogue, through referrals to flight, meadows, the unseen character of Aaron, and the painful moment of sadness being so visible that it appears “like a wet towel” around the neck. But most powerful of all is the image of hope that is expressed throughout the the entire piece.
Included as part of the Guthrie’s “Singular Voices, Plural Perspectives” series, each show includes a post-show discussion with Dickey, allowing audiences members to share their thoughts and ask questions. Part of Joe Haj’s initiative to create a more town hall-like conversation around performances, it is a wonderful opportunity to for the artist to receive feedback and for audiences to engage more personally with the work.
“The Amish Project” is written and performed by Jessica Dickey. It is playing in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater from now through February 14th. Ticketing information and show dates can be found on the Guthrie’s website.