Transcending tragedy in The Amish Project 

The play triumphs in the face of a tragic school massacre.

Jessica Dickey’s The Amish Project is, on the surface at least, about the 2006 shooting of 10 young Amish girls in Pennsylvania by a milk delivery man whose motives have never been definitively ascertained. It’s known that Charles Carl Roberts IV (not Amish himself) entered the West Nickel Mines School on Oct. 2, sent teachers and boys out of the school, tied up the remaining girls and shot them point blank before killing himself. Five of the girls died and some of the others were permanently damaged. Roberts left four suicide notes, suggesting that he was driven by fantasies of molesting children, or perhaps by anger at God for the death of one of his own babies shortly after its birth. The shooting rocked the nation not only because of its intrinsic horror, but because the Amish are so pacifistic and humble, images of innocence, love and kindness. If even these beautiful children could be targeted, who was immune? As a bookstore clerk in an Associated Press news report said at the time, “It just goes to show, there’s no safe place. There’s really no such thing.”

Maybe not; still, there’s art to console us for living in such uncertainty. And author Dickey is a capable artist. Using one actor only — in this case the luminous Katherine Michelle Tanner — she shows us seven personages involved in the shooting, and asks us to learn from the Amish response: forgiveness. This may be hard to take at first. Surely we’re not being prompted to pardon a mass murderer, a criminal who took the innocent lives of angelic children! But that’s the play’s gambit: We’re asked to think like the Amish for just a few minutes, to forgive Charles Roberts, to console his widow, to leave our souls untouched by hatred, and to trust simply in God. I doubt that many audience members will be willing to absolve Roberts of blame — I, for one, can’t — but there’s something thrilling in Dickey’s effort to wrench our sentiments so completely and make us adopt a revolutionary perspective. Is it possible — even for a moment — to be this pure? Can we even imagine it?

With Tanner as our guide, all sorts of improbabilities become possible. Only a few months after playing complex Nora in A Doll’s House, this talented performer takes on the role of two children in the schoolhouse, the murderer and his widow, a scholar specializing in Amish life, a pregnant Hispanic girl from a nearby community, and a middle-aged woman who verbally assaults the killer’s spouse. In every case, she’s superb. As murderer Roberts, here called “Eddie Stuckey,” she’s a stubbornly human figure who likes cats, the color blue, kissing his sons and insisting that “I’m more than that, you know — I’m more than the Why.” Dressed by Saidah Ben Judah in Amish costume — bonnet, long dress, white apron, black shoes — Tanner transforms effortlessly from one character to another, changing verbal tone and physical gesture with repeated success. Wandering throughout Greg Bierce’s set, she even manages to suggest all the many Amish adults who are mentioned but never impersonated.

Is the play more meaningful because all the characters are played by one person? I don’t think so: Clearly Dickey uses this convention for economic reasons (and personal ones — she played all the parts Off-Broadway). But in a theater world where financial facts lead inevitably to such expedients, you could hardly do better than to find a Katherine Tanner. A warning: when she plays 6-year-old Velda, she breaks your heart. Not least when the child, educated in martyrdom, asks the madman to shoot her.

So yes, this one’s worth your while. It has the audacity to ask you to try on a new mindset. Just for a moment — for half a moment — can you imagine yourself Amish?

Then the play’s done its job.

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