June 13, 2009

"The Amish Project" has Moments of Grace

Some people look at theater as an escape. But for me the best theater doesn’t take me away from the world but helps me better understand what is going on in it. So I was blown away back in 1991 when I first saw the documentary theater Anna Deavere Smith created with her one-woman show Fires in the Mirror.

Culling a series of monologues from interviews with real-life people who had participated in or observed the riots that ensued after a car driven by an Hasidic man killed a seven-year old black boy in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, Deavere Smith made better sense of those tumultuous events than any of the scores of news accounts I saw at the time. Moisés Kaufman did something similarly affective with The Laramie Project, which used interviews, private documents and published news reports to tell the story of the homophobia-inspired murder of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard in 1998.

My vivid memories of those brilliant productions made me eager to see The Amish Project, the new show about the slaughter of five girls in an Amish schoolhouse in 2006 that opened this week at the tiny Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in the Village. Like Fires in the Mirror, The Amish Project, written and performed by Jessica Dickey, is a one-woman show told through the voices of various people connected to that tragic incident. But as the program notes make clear, Dickey has taken a different approach to creating her voices.

Unlike Deveare Smith and Kaufman who spent weeks interviewing people about the incidents they portrayed, Dickey has simply imagined the thoughts and feelings of the people involved. “I was highly aware through the entire process that somewhere out there are the real people who went through the event,” she writes. But, she continues, “I purposefully did not research the gunman or his widow nor did I conduct interviews of any kind.”

Oh dear, I thought, my heart sinking as I read her comments, so this is going to be documentary theater lite. The fact that I like Dickey’s work as much as I do and that I found it so moving is a testament to her strong writing and acting skills and to the sensitive direction of Sarah Cameron Sunde.

Working on a stage with a minimal set—a chair, a few suspended window frames—and dressed in traditional Amish garb, Dickey creates seven characters, including two victims of the shooting and the widow of the man who committed the crime. She has changed the names of these people but slips into and out of their personalities with impressive agility, etching them so sharply that, in most cases, you can tell, by the hunch of a shoulder or the way the eyes move, who is going to speak before she or he even says a word.

Dickey is particularly winning as the young, wide-eyed Amish girl who opens the play. Having done some homework, she also does a good job of conveying the details of Amish beliefs and customs, channeling much of the information through her impersonation of a local college professor who has studied the group.

But Dickey makes missteps too. Far too much time is spent on the only marginally-related story of a stereotypically sassy Puerto Rican salesgirl who works in a store near the shootings. The character provides some levity but Dickey seems to keep her around largely because she so clearly gets a kick out of playing that character. Meanwhile, the gunman's wife that Dickey imagines seems unnecessarily crude. The program note says she doesn’t want to hurt any of those involved in the tragedy but it’s hard to see how the real-life widow wouldn’t be further wounded by this portrait.

For the most part, though, this small 70-minute show fulfills its mission as a hymn of praise to the Amish community. It doesn’t explain why such terrible things as the massacre happen but
Dickey's admiration for the Amish way of life is sincere and her heartfelt play shows that even the most tragic events can produce moments of grace. And so does The Amish Project.


James Sims said...

I've written an article about Jessica Dickey and her creative process in putting together "The Amish Project." You can check it out here: http://www.simsscoop.com/blog/archives/654.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks for reading, James. And for letting us know about your article. It's a nice piece (it's always great to get a look into the process behind the finished production) and a very nice website. Albest, jan