It's a hard thing to go see a play about a high-profile shooting shortly after a different high-profile shooting dominates the news cycle. I imagine a day will come when this sort of art about America's peculiar habit no longer seems "too soon," simply because the barrage of armed men gunning down people in churches, at schools and on the job will be so great that we'll all be too numb to be shocked or traumatized. We'll simply sit in the dark and try to remember which particular incident the play is referencing.
Jessica Dickey's The Amish Project is inspired by the 2006 West Nickel Mines shooting, in which a lone gunman killed five girls in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Dickey uses the event less as factual grounding for her one-woman show and more as a springboard to explore the idea of forgiveness. Because here, as in real life, the Amish families of the slain girls publicly forgave the killer and his widow; they viewed her as a victim of violence, just as they were.
Deanna Jent directs Mustard Seed Theatre's production of the play, which stars Amy Loui. The set, designed by Kyra Bishop, looks like a kindergartner's drawing hung on the wall, with a center cutout of a simple schoolhouse outline. Childlike crayon clouds, a tree and the sun surround the school; most of the action takes place inside the cutout, where a large blackboard and a single desk wait.
The script demands that Loui jump between seven characters: two Amish sisters, the killer's widow, a college professor, a local woman, a Puerto Rican teenager and the killer. She does it all while wearing the long-sleeve dress, bonnet and white apron of an Amish schoolgirl — in some scenes, it's distracting. The flamboyant Puerto Rican teenager who snaps her fingers in a "Z" for emphasis is a stock character who needs to be retired, but watching a woman play her while in Amish mufti is bizarre at the very least.
Several of these scenes cycle between two characters in a series of brief outbursts — at times with fewer than 100 words spoken. What is perhaps meant to build tension instead splits the focus of both the play and the audience.
But what works works very well. The widow is a woman being slowly consumed by grief and guilt. Loui's voice spikes with anger when she theorizes, "We are all just a few bad days away from 'sicko.'" It's not so much a rationalization of her husband's actions as it is a fear that the more depressed she gets, the more likely she is to be swallowed by the same darkness that engulfed her husband.
It is as the killer — Eddie — that Loui excels. Leaning against the wall outside the schoolhouse, he watches us for a long, silent stretch of time and just smokes, and then warns us that he's not going to explain or justify what he did. (Our own frequent experience with manifestos and video testimony tells us that knowing the killer's reasoning never helps us understand "why" anyway.) His voice cold and flat, Eddie explains the sexual thrill he gets from seeing the little bits of pink flesh that are exposed by the full-cover garb the Amish girls wear. He's wearing the same dress, of course, a realization that turns your blood to water. But Eddie also wants us to know that he's not entirely a bad guy — he "likes cats, and the kinda flowers that smell," as if these benign truths, piled high enough, will outweigh the monstrousness of his actions.
His forgiveness comes from the Amish, and in the framework of the play it makes sense. But now in the daylight I find it difficult to articulate and harder to comprehend how they could offer him absolution, fictionally and in real life. The words are in my notes, and yet I can't make sense of them.
That's likely because I'm not the most forgiving person. But the college professor, here to explain the culture and beliefs of the Amish, says something about forgiveness I do understand: "Heavy to accept, and heavy to receive." Just because it's a burden I don't want to carry doesn't mean you can't heft that weight yourself.