The Amish Project @ Rattlestick Theatre, New York

written and peformed by
Jessica Dickey

directed by
Sarah Cameron Sunde
Written and performed by Jessica Dickey, The Amish Project examines the 2006 incident in which a gunman broke into an Amish schoolhouse and killed six young girls before taking his own life.

Though in both title and subject matter the play brings to mind The Laramie Project, Dickey has chosem a very different creative approach.

Her play echoes The Laramie Project only in the fact that it is a multiple character examination of a tragedy that captured the attention of the national media.

The Amish Project is concerned as much with the emotional fallout of the incident as with the facts – the author is very clear about this. The characters and motivations of the non-Amish are not based on hard fact or verbatim accounts; there are fictional devices in place.

The point of the piece is rather to examine how the Amish could react as they did. In the aftermath of the shooting, the Amish reached out to the wife and family of the gunman to offer forgiveness and charity, believing she was a victim as well. In looking back, this was an extremely hard concept for many people to grasp, whether news viewers or neighbors of those involved. And it is this reaction, and our understanding of it, where Dickey focuses her attentions.

She makes some interesting choices regarding which characters to showcase: the key characters include the wife of the killer, one of the little girls who was killed, and a college professor who has studied the Amish. She doesnt ever portray an Amish adult, someone who has actively chosen this life of separation. It turns out to be an intelligent choice, as the Amish are often seen as foreign, almost alien, presences in this world. In making this choice, the motivations of the Amish are inferred, guessed at – and, crucially, not explained. This requires the audience to question their own judgments and responses to the actions of the Amish community after the shootings.

The piece is well-acted by Dickey, as she switches from character to character, and well-directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde. In fact, nearly all of the creative team are women, which I think perhaps gives the piece a certain a slant that might otherwise have been lost.

The play does make some missteps, one of which is the portrayal of the gunman. The inclusion of him as a character brought very little to the show as, until then, it had been chiefly concerned with making its audience try to understand the motivations of the participants – the decision to include the gunman, though understandable, ended up feeling rather superfluous and distracting.

Dickeys research into the Amish community has clearly been thorough and she imparts much of what she has learnt to her audience, engendering a sense of understanding and empathy for these people. The resulting show, though it sometimes strays, is, in the main, a powerful and truly thought-provoking piece of theatre.

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