The Amish Project was originally written by Jessica Dickey as a one-woman piece, designed to show off an actress’s character skills in multi-roling. The students from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota School of the Arts have chosen to present her ensemble version of the play – and having seen their version, I can’t imagine seeing it with only one cast member.
The larger ensemble allows for more interesting vocal work, with many voices repeating phrases to create an eerie choral effect, building tension. They also blend scenes together, allowing audience to witness contrasting characters and viewpoints simultaneously, and using overlapping entrances and exits effectively.
The play is inspired by one real-life shooting in America, in Nickel Mines in Pennsylvania, all the more shocking because it targeted the peaceful Amish community – and in particular, their children. This production marks ten years almost to the day since the shooting. On 2 October 2006, Charles Carl Roberts took ten schoolgirls hostage in their schoolroom, shooting eight and killing five. The incident sent shockwaves through the community, but many were equally astounded at the forgiveness extended by the Amish community towards Roberts and his family.
The Amish Project represents events immediately after the shooting: the initial grief of the families affected, the horror of the locals as their own lives march on, and the interest and at times bafflement of the press. Taylor Novak as Velda introduces us to Amish culture and the setting of the tragedy: her childish innocence, on the brink of her teenage years and full of dreams for the future, is a poignant signal of what we know is to come. We also encounter her grieving parents Aaron and her unnamed mother, in gentle understated but affecting performances from Taylor Crothers and Diana Haynes. However, we hear many facts about the Amish way of life, the play reveals little about these characters beyond the parental grief you would expect. I would like to have seen deeper character examination of these figures, delving into why they could forgive their daughters’ attacker with such apparent ease.
More revealing is the portrayal of Carol Stuckey, wife of the perpetrator Eddie (names have been changed from the real events). It is a stand-out performance by Victoria Madigan, attempting to negotiate the unpredictable stages of grief: confusion, heartbreak, range, breakdown, and finally the attempt to continue with normal aspects of your life. Here the script is at its most believable and heart-rending – when just going to the shops to buy some moisturiser, or getting your children to eat their breakfast, becomes a victory in itself.
The pace does drag at times and the whole show feels longer than its under 90-minute running time. Despite some bold performances and strong ideas, several characters lacked the development I would have liked. The decision to put the climactic shooting mid-way through the piece means the tension fades too early making the last half an hour or so rather slow. However, this is a moving piece and a brave interpretation, and this company of student performers have plenty of promise.
The Amish Project is playing at the New Wimbledon Studio until 8 October. For more information and tickets, see the ATG tickets website.