As we left the American Theatre Company’s The Amish Project, I didn’t ask my roommate Rob if he cried.
I asked him how many times he did.
That’s how moving and how brilliant was this one-act “one woman” play inspired by events surrounding the schoolhouse shootings of 10 girls in the Amish community of Nickel Mines in 2006.
New York-based playwright Jessica Dickey hails from central Pennsylvania, not far from where the shootings took place, and her complex, layered script demands a high-wire actress with the quick-change capacity of a schizophrenic.
Dickey performed the feat herself at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre off-Broadway in 2008, to rave critical reviews. But I have to say I was nervous (bordering on skeptical) that there could be a smooth handoff to an actress who did not participate in its writing.
Award-winning ATC ensemble member Sadieh Rifai does a spectacular job in Dickey’s stead, panning between a series of eight complex characters, from a young victim, her sister, their mother, to the murderer, the murderer’s wife, a not-Amish store clerk, two townspeople and a press-conferencing expert on the ways of the Amish.
Introduced in a series of monologues, Rifai embues each character with such distinct traits we’re able to stay with her as the script whirls and sharply turns among them, sometimes with not more than one sentence between voices.
Well-crafted lighting and sound designs–both expertly executed–help cue the audience to shifts between characters and moods. A sparse but evocative set–the suggestion of a cornfield; child chalk drawings on the floor–is haunting in that otherworldly sense of the word.
The subtitle is “Death and Forgiveness at an Amish School,” and it should be noted that there is far more of the latter than the former at the heart of the story.
In fact, my favorite character of all is not directly connected with the shootings.
She’s a Puerto Rican store clerk named America who sees a non-Amish townsperson harangue the widow of the murderer shortly after the shootings and comes to the distraught woman’s aid.
Sassy and wise in the way that young people can be, she helps bring some much needed levity to the material. Serving a similar function is Anna Yoder, both a shooting victim and the older sister of another victim.
Her innocence and observations through Rifai’s spectacular repeated regressions into her child state, set the stage for forgiveness while providing a chilling first hand account of the awful shooting itself. The straight talking chain-smoking widow of the shooter is the vehicle for much of the anguish.
There’s something magic about this script that director and ATC artistic director PJ Paparelli taps directly into and that electrifies this production. By its very riskiness, this is one of those plays that is destined to either be a spectacular hit or a huge disappointment depending on the capabilities and execution of the cast and crew.
The American Theatre Company’s production of The Amish Project delivered more than I could have hoped for. (I cried twice, incidentally, and laughed more times than I would have thought possible given the subject matter.)
The Amish Project runs at the American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St., through October 23. Tickets begin at $35. (773) 409-4125