Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Dickey has not written a docudrama laden with facts, interview statements, and ballistic evidence. Instead, The Amish Project is an inspired creation of characters that could be involved in such a tragedy. Whether or not these characters are the likeness of any of the real people at West Nickel Mines turns out to be of no consequence. As both playwright and actor, Dickey illuminates how the human heart bears unimaginable loss, and how a community can offer solace and forgiveness. One fact that Dickey does take from the actual case is the statement issued by the Amish leaders forgiving the shooter, along with outreach to aid and comfort the wife and three children he left behind. This becomes one of the central tenets of the play.
Depictions of members of the Amish community are limited to two of the victims, sisters Velda, age 6, and Anna, age 14. Amish adults are represented by Aaron, Velda, and Anna's father, but he is not enacted as one of Dickey's characters. Rather, other characters interact with Aaron, and through them we come to know Aaron. One of these is professor Bill North, who has studied Amish culture for thirty years, and has a long standing relationship with Aaron. Another is Carol Stuckey, widow of the shooter, the fictionalized Eddie Stuckey. Carol initially reacts to Aaron's offering, on behalf of the Amish community, of forgiveness and comfort with rage, while her kitchen fills up with Amish women stocking her cupboard and preparing food for her traumatized family.
Two characters provide other ways of understanding the tragedy. Sherry Local is an area resident, not Amish, who is overcome with scorn not only toward the killer, but toward his wife. When she spots Carol in the dollar store, she lashes out, roaring that "If you were a decent wife, your husband wouldn't have had been driven to this." The other character is a sixteen-year-old girl, America, daughter of a Puerto Rican single mother who works at the dollar store, and is pregnant. Her attempt to offer kindness to Carol after Sherry's outburst is cruelly rebuffed, as Carol resorts to a racial slur. America is cast as an outsider in this place, and the Amish are viewed as outsiders by mainstream culture, while Carol is an outsider in the context of the Amish community that encircles her. Mediations on how we perceive ourselves or others as outsiders and what this does to our ability to recognize our common humanity run deep throughout The Amish Project.
The actual shooting is depicted very gently, narrated by young Velda as if she is describing a playground game. Actually, Velda is the first character we meet. She tells us all about her family, her school, and her world in a giggly, highly dramatic manner that perfectly captures the essence of being six years old. We quickly see that being Amish does not make Velda a bit different than any other six year old in terms of the things she finds silly, or important, or gross, or comforting. We do briefly meet Eddie Stuckey, the shooter, who reveals yearnings for the Amish girls that lead to his barbarous acts. However, the focus of The Amish Project is far more on how the tragedy affects those left in its wake, in ways that are heartwrenching as well as in ways that are hopeful.
As a writer, Ms. Dickey is a master of language and voice, as each of her characters speaks from their own experience and world view. At times her characters shift rapidly from one to another, creating a synergistic whole that strikes more deeply than any of the separate parts. As an actress, Dickey is similarly gifted, as she alters voice, posture, and expression to signify each person's uniqueness, and seamlessly moves from one to another. The range of her creation from Velda's innocence to America's perseverance to Carol's hoarse despair is stunning.
The physical production is very simple: a bare stage, save one lone chair, with three sets of windowpanes hanging toward the rear from which Carol peers out upon the larger world she alternately fears, loathes, and yearns for. Along the rear wall of the stage, a low row of crops curving up from the floor represents the rich Pennsylvania Dutch farmland, with a wide open sky stretching above it. Dickey portrays all of the characters dressed in traditional Amish garb throughout, her hair covered beneath a starchy white bonnet. The effect, over the course of the play, normalizes this appearance, so that this visible, almost iconic picture of Amish "different-ness" begins to matter less, and shared human needs and impulses begin to matter more.
The Amish Project is beautifully written and performed. Though brief at seventy minutes, it feels totally complete. Since its 2008 premiere, two years after the tragedy occurred, it has become sadly more relevant as our nation continues to reel from mass shootings in schools, workplaces, movie theaters, churches, and elsewhere. The open-hearted response of the Amish community in the case of the shooting at the West Nickel Mines School gives this play a specific vantage point from which Dickey has spun her own tale, weaving together the most extreme of emotions into a drama this is both achingly intimate and broadly humane.
The Amish Project is the second installment in the Guthrie series titled Singular Voices, Plural Perspectives: A Curated Series of Performances and Community Dialogue. Each of the four productions in the series features a single actor presenting his or her unique insights into challenging societal issues. The series led off with Wrestling Jerusalem, written and performed by Aaron Davidman (see Talkinbroadway.com review, October 23, 2015). Upcoming offerings are The 20th Century Abridged, written and performed by Taylor Mac, and A Boy and His Soul, written and performed by Coleman Domingo.
The Amish Project continues at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio through February 14, 2016. 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets from $29.00 to $35.00; Senior (65+), Student (18+) and Guthrie Season Ticket Holders - $26.00 - $32.00. Public Rush tickets for unsold seats 30 minutes before each performance. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to guthrietheater.org.
Writer: Jessica Dickey; Original Director: Sarah Cameron Sunde; Scenic and Costume Design: Lauren Helpern; Lighting Design: Nicole Pearce; Sound Design: Jill BC DuBoff; Stage Manager: Joelle Coutu
Cast: Jessica Dickey (Velda, Anna, Carol Stuckey, Dr. Bill North, Sherry Local, America, Eddie Stuckey).