The Amish Project
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 8, 2009
Jessica Dickey's solo play The Amish Project is thought-provoking, compelling theatre. It is inspired by a real event, the shooting of 10 children at a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. But Dickey makes sure that we understand that the stories she tells and the characters she presents are all fictional: "I purposefully did not research the gunman or his widow, nor did I conduct any interviews of any kind," she writes in a program note. Dickey and director Sarah Cameron Sunde have nonetheless elected to present the play in a documentary style, the kind familiar to theatergoers from plays by Anna Deavere Smith and Moises Kaufman and to fans of countless "reality TV" shows where characters speak directly to the audience recounting their experiences; we jump back and forth between the various people involved and piece together a selective version of what actually happened. The fact that Dickey's work is fiction rather than fact-based doesn't make it feel less "true" because (a) she clearly captures an emotional truth in her work and (b) the message is the medium, to coin a phrase, and so if the play looks like a docudrama it will feel like one.
My ambivalence, then, about The Amish Project, mirrors that of its creator, who tells us that she wanted to respect the privacy of all the victims of the Nickel Mines shooting—the families of the little girls who were killed and the widow of the gunman—but at the same time is clearly willing to use their tragedy as source material for her art. I wondered, for example, why Dickey changed the names of people involved but not the location and date. The line between the actual and the virtual is very blurry here, and for me that's quite problematic.
That said, The Amish Project is extremely well-executed. The writing is intense and concise, and the seven characters that Dickey plays—effortlessly switching back and forth among them—are vivid and fully fleshed out. Sunde's direction is beautifully detailed; I liked the way she allows the characters to occupy space all over the stage instead of being locked into a specific location, relying on Dickey's skill as an actor and on the audience's imagination to know who's talking to us at any given time. The physical production—spare and simple—is exquisite; kudos to set designer Lauren Helpern, sound designer Jill BC DuBoff, and especially lighting designer Nicole Pearce, who uses a palette of rich primary colors that set the mood brilliantly and remind us of the majesty of nature in a way that one imagines the Amish characters in the play would particularly appreciate.
Dickey's choices as a writer are unfailingly interesting and sometimes surprising. The main character of The Amish Project is Velda, a six-year-old girl who we quickly realize is one of the victims of the shooting; Dickey uses her both to provide a window onto the often strange (to most Americans) lifestyle and customs of the Amish community. The other principal character is Carol Stuckey, widow of the gunman (renamed here); it is in her exploration of what it might be like to be this kind of innocent victim of a horrendous crime—i.e., a woman whose life is irrevocably changed for the worse solely because her husband is or became insane—that Dickey's compassion and intelligence as a playwright really shines. Carol is someone that people who control the coverage of human events (the media, historians, artists) seldom seem to look at.
Others in the play include Velda's older sister, Mary; a scholar on Amish culture; a Hispanic girl who has a memorable encounter with Carol Stuckey; and a non-Amish Nickel Mines resident. The fact that the Amish publicly forgave the real perpetrator of the shootings also pervades Dickey's play.
Only a month ago, Chiori Miyagawa gave theatergoers a play called I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour, a meditation on memories of a national tragedy and who finally owns them. Dickey's Project provides a fascinating counterpoint to Miyagawa's themes. Is there a possible synthesis that can be extrapolated from these contemporary dramas that will actually point the way toward an end to these catastrophes?