The Amish Project, by Jessica Dickey. Directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"There is no 'why'"
There is always truth in a historical play. Do the research, find the center of the story and write to it, around it or through it - those are your choices. In her play "The Amish Project," which as a title tells me the author isn't done with the work as yet, Jessica Dickey chose all three directions in which to write. The resultant collection of small monologues for seven people whose lives are touched by the tragedy of a shooting of Amish schoolgirls in their one-room schoolhouse in 2006 is fascinating and the one narrative character, a young girl named Velda, is also the most lively and involved person on this stage. On stage now at The Chester Theatre in the town hall of Chester, MA the play is being given a brutal and honest new look.
A single actress, Allison McLemore, plays all of the characters: Carol Stuckey, the wife of the man who shoots the Amish children; her husband, Eddie; a second Amish girl, Anna; America, a teenage Puerto Rican girl from town; Sherry Local, a woman whose past seems to haunt her calm demeanor; Bill North, a conciliator who attempts to control the media end of the situation; and Velda. McLemore, dressed in a simple, single Amish outfit designed by Emily Dunn, moves among these diverse characters with ease and skill and I was never confused at any point in the play as to which person I was seeing on stage. Even when a monologue consisted of two short sentences, the transition the actress made into and out of that character was specific and simple. The chore she has taken on is remarkable and very well executed.
Mental health issues thread their way through the play and, unfortunately, a piece of actual information from the real case is not included in this play. The perpetrator did call his wife from inside the West Nickel Mines schoolhouse to tell her that had found himself needing to repeat a crime he had committed twenty years earlier that resulted in the deaths of two young girls. He also left four suicide notes for her and their children. Without that in the play, we find widowed Carol only finding out what happened second hand and without a communication from the husband and father she had lived with. These truths would have changed the focus of the play away from the women and left it in the lap of the man himself and that is not the play that Dickey wanted to write. Her choices constitute the same difficulties that historians have left us with for centuries: history is what an arbitrary author makes it out to be.
Dickey's play also deals with the almost impossible psychological concept of forgivenes. What haunts Carol is the Amish father and leader who brings himself and a coterie of women to her home the day after the shooting to console her after her husband's heinous acts. He has forgiven the man his crimes against his people and wants the murderer's wife and children not so suffer from Eddie's actions. Carol cannot get her mind around this sort of act and therein lies the superior conflict of the play. Here, in the scenes concerned with this act, McLemore is dynamic and moving and the play becomes more than a technical performance of multi-character speeches. Here, in this part of the offering, is the message the author brings to the fore and here, also, is the test of an actress's ability to present a message without being preachy or overbearing. This is a test that Allison McLemore passes with flying colors.
On a wonderful, graphic set designed by Travis A. George, director Daniel Elihu Kramer guides his cast through her paces. Without using the technical possibilities of lighting and sound to mark her movement between characters, he has worked her into the variety of roles with seamless grace.
If you take away the motive question, and this is posed in different ways by different characters, you are left with the final moments of the play where a bigger question is posed and not just by one character to another. In an unusual invasion of private space, the author has her character - and I'm not clear just which one. . .or ones - impose her needs on her audience. Who she is, where she is, is open to interpretation and you should find your own when you see the play. But if the purpose of this play is to get to this point, then the author and director have made that overwhelmingly clear. And the answer is. . . ?
Allison McLemore as Velda; photo: Rick Teller
Allison McLemore as Carol Stuckey; photo: Rick Teller
The Amish Project plays through August 24 at the Chester Theatre Company's theater in the Chester Town Hall off of route 20 in Chester, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 1-800-595-4TIX or go on line to www.chestertheatre.org.