The Amish Project Focuses on Forgiveness in Face of Tragedy
By Susan L. Pena
When 32-year-old dairy truck driver Charles C. Roberts entered West Nickel Mines Amish School in Lancaster County on Oct. 2, 2006, and shot 11 girls (age 6 to 13), four of them fatally, it shocked the entire country.
Then, as news emerged that the Amish community who had suffered this horrific act had not only forgiven Roberts (who had killed himself), but had reached out with kindness and compassion to his widow in many ways, people not familiar with Amish culture were equally shocked.
Playwright Jessica Dickey became so fascinated with the Amish reaction to what many would view as an unforgivable crime that she wrote her first play, “The Amish Project,” as a poetic exploration of the profound questions raised by this incident. Originally a one-woman piece performed by Dickey herself off-Broadway in the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, the play has been adapted by Dickey as an ensemble play and in that form continues to be presented by theater companies throughout the United States.
That version will be co- produced by the Fall Festival of the Arts and the WCR Center for the Arts as part of the 2021 Fall Festival of the Arts Friday September 17 and Saturday September 18 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday September 19 at 3 p.m., directed by John Gancar and starring eight veterans of local and regional theaters.
Dickey, who grew up in Waynesboro, said in a recent telephone interview that she felt compelled to write “The Amish Project” after hearing the details on national media and “the duality of those two extremes (the murders and the forgiveness) so close together.”
Having earned a degree in acting and theater at Boston University, she had enjoyed a successful career as an actor in theater and television, but playwriting was new to her.
She researched Amish culture and during that process formed a friendship with Donald B. Kraybill, the expert on the Amish and professor at Elizabethtown College who wrote “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy” about the Nickel Mines incident.
As she wrote the play, she said, “I noticed that the characters were speaking one at a time, and I felt that many voices were coming through one voice.”
Although she had never done a one-person show, “it sort of emerged out of the writing and I knew to trust that.”
Once she had made that decision, she turned to solo plays like “I Am My Own Wife” (2003) by Doug Wright and “Nine Parts of Desire” (2004) by Heather Raffo, for ideas about structure and “for courage,” she said.
“The play is a fictionalized exploration of this real crime,” Dickey said. “All the characters are fictionalized. I didn’t want to ask more of the real people who had lived through these events, or cause any more harm.
“As I wrote, I discovered it was about my own spiritual questions about how to hold on to our ideals in such a violent world. What does forgiveness mean? . . . The play doesn’t try to posit that forgiveness is how we must respond, but it explores the possibility, especially for our nation. We’re a nation at war, a nation with capital punishment. This is an option; it felt radical. We watched the story unfold in the media, and the forgiveness struck us dumb. (The Amish community) embraced the gunman’s family as fellow victims.
“Theater gives us a chance to gather as a group and investigate who we are and what we are to make of the choices before us in this world. The play casts varying lights on various aspects of the central question, so we can carry different perspectives forward as audience members, as we and our nation grapple with who we really want to be in the world and with each other.”
She said performing the work was “really scary,” because “it’s a truly difficult text to memorize, and it’s a direct dialogue with the audience. You can hear and feel how they’re reacting as you’re constantly speaking. It’s incredibly difficult, but also addicting. It’s so moving to be so intimately tethered and connected to an audience. It’s sort of an ‘uber theater’ experience.”
During her journey, both writing and performing the piece, Dickey said, “I discovered an incredible heartache for the gunman. I discovered the mystery of what it means to forgive, but also the mystery of what it means to be forgiven.
“It’s a very complex contract; I had the image of a hand gripping and offering a very thick rope, and to be forgiven means to also take hold of the rope, and both parties are agreeing to climb up. It’s not a simple handshake and then they part. It’s an emotional and spiritual contract . . . For both parties there is a burden.
“On a personal level, I discovered a calling. I’ve been lucky enough to have a career as an artist, but this allowed me to say, OK, I can do this, but what am I really doing this for? What kind of work do I really want to make?
“I’m trying to write plays and investigate subjects that ask very large spiritual questions . . . I knew that was important to me, but becoming a writer crystallized it for me in ‘The Amish Project.’”
After receiving acclaim for the play, Dickey went on to write many others, including “Row After Row” (about Civil War re-enactors), “The Rembrandt” and 2019’s “The Convent.”
In the midst of an already burgeoning playwriting career, she earned her MFA in creative writing from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., which she called “deep and impactful,” and the result of a “middle-of-the-night realization that I wanted to do this,” she said.
She is currently residing temporarily in Los Angeles (her permanent home is in New York), juggling a big handful of projects: writing for the new Apple TV comedy series “Physical” starring Rose Byrne and created by Annie Weisman; doing pre-production for her new play “Nan and the Lower Body” about her grandmother and the creation of the pap smear, for TheatreWorks in Palo Alto; and working on a commission for the Cleveland Playhouse.
The characters of “The Amish Project” are two sisters who were victims, the gunman’s wife Carol, the gunman Eddie, a local non-Amish woman, a Latinx girl in a grocery store, and a scholar similar to—but not based on—Kraybill. They are brought to vivid life in a series of spare, evocative monologues.
Gancar said he has added a character to the lineup—an Amish woman, performed by Tama McConnell—who will be singing Amish hymns in German, to represent that community.
He said that as he worked with each individual actor during rehearsals, “we realized that each of the characters has their own journey. . . They’re all looking for something, trying to find something.
“There was so much discovery during the whole rehearsal process. It’s not about the shooting; it’s the journey to forgiveness. Carol has the hardest, most difficult journey to take, so ultimately it’s her story.
“It’s a much more spiritual piece than I’ve ever worked on before . . . This story just drew me in. It’s been a great experience working on this piece. I feel privileged getting to work on it.”
The cast will include Adeline Cosentino and Genevieve Gagnon as the sisters, Kathleen Harris Brantman as Carol, Daniel Graf as Eddie, Richard Bradbury as the scholar Bill North, Karyn Morgan Reppert as Sherry Local and Raycell Diaz Hernandez as America.
If you go:
Event: The Fall Festival of the Arts and The WCR Center for the Arts present “The Amish Project,” by Jessica Dickey.
When: Friday and Saturday, September 17 and 18, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, September 19, at 3 p.m.
Where: WCR Center for the Arts, 140 N. Fifth St.
Tickets: $20 www.brownpapertickets.com search The Amish project or 1-800-838-3006