In a work not for the faint of heart, Simpatico Theatre Project and the Renegade Company are presenting an affecting co-production of The Amish Project, playwright Jessica Dickey’s powerful look at the 2006 shootings at the West Nickel Mines School.
A solo work starring Janice Rowland, The Amish Project is set in Lancaster, Pa., about 90 minutes outside of Philadelphia, home to a large Amish community and the one-room schoolhouse attended by the children of the region’s Amish families. It grabs our attention immediately with an opening line delivered with chilling clarity: “Man enters Amish schoolhouse and opens fire.”
In the 70-minute production, Rowland plays seven eclectic characters that, to varying degrees, were affected by the rampage, which took place on Oct. 2, 2006, when Carl Roberts walked into the West Nickel Mines School armed with three guns. After ordering the teacher and the male students to leave, he shot and killed five female students and wounded five others. Rowland ably channels not only Roberts—who is referred to in the play as Eddie—but Eddie’s widow, Carol, and two of the slaughtered Amish girls, along with three local townpeople: a 16-year-old Latina girl, America, who works at the local Giant supermarket, a university professor who has studied the Amish culture for decades and a bitter woman who seemingly represents Lancaster’s non-Amish community.
Although a work of fiction, Project is similar at times to the docudrama The Laramie Project, which relied on interviews with residents of Laramie, Wyo., to recall the murder of Mathew Shepard. However, for The Amish Project, Dickey didn’t conduct any interviews or extensive research, other than to visit the schoolhouse site. By making her Project a work of fiction, Dickey gives herself the creative freedom to imagine the slain girls in the afterlife, and in her recreation, Eddie went to the schoolhouse intending to rape them. “I wanted to have the girls,” he says in the empty, chillingly monotonous voice Rowland aptly uses to play the disturbed killer.
There are a few moments of humor, and while there are no acts of violence enacted on stage, much of director James Stover’s harrowing production can be difficult to watch. “Mister, please shoot me first,” one of the schoolgirls pleads to her captor as Dickey takes us inside the schoolhouse and imagines the last moments in the lives of the innocent children. As alarming as those scenes are, the most disquieting involve Carol. “I still love my husband,” she explains, trying mightily to hold herself and her family together while their world falls apart.
Under Stover’s direction, Rowland invests herself fully into her characters. By defining each one as much by posture and gestures as voice, in her most profoundly empathetic portrayal, she gives us a sense of Carol’s fragile psychological condition. Since her husband committed suicide after killing the schoolchildren, Carol finds herself the primary target of the townspeople’s anger. Writing in a style that mixes poetic images of nature and the afterlife with the harsh discourse of reality and explosions of profanity, Dickey adeptly communicates the depth of Carol’s pain and bewilderment. In a particularly memorable scene, Carol is verbally accosted at the local supermarket by a shopper who tells her, “If you were a decent wife, those poor girls would be alive today. There is a fresh hell where you’ll join your sicko husband.” In another, several bereaved parents go to her house to offer their condolences. It’s a surreal but tender moment of mercy, as Dickey effectively displays how Carol and the Amish community are connected by their common grief.
It is impossible to watch The Amish Project without recalling last month’s horror in Newtown, Conn., and some people may consider it too soon to present a play that examines a tragically similar event. According to Michael Durkin, Renegade’s artistic director, the decision to stage the play with Simpatico Theatre Project this month was made last summer. Unlike the theater company American Stage in Tampa Bay, Fla.—which debated whether to go ahead with their plans to stage The Amish Project this April following the school shooting in Newtown—Durkin says there “was never any hesitation to not produce the work. It was more important for the show to be produced in order to discuss the role of guns in society and the effects of what can happen.” To that end, Simpatico and Renegade have partnered with the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia for a discussion about gun control following the 2 p.m. performance on Sun., Jan. 27.
The Amish Project doesn’t specifically address gun control. Instead, it examines a community trying to process an event that has left the survivors in a state of almost unbearable sorrow. Yet despite the play’s disturbing subject matter, it also reveals the resiliency of the human spirit and how one community found the courage to forgive an unforgivable—and, for most people, incomprehensible—crime.
Through Feb. 3. $10-$22. Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5, 825 Walnut St. 215.423.0254. simpaticotheatre.org