In the very best moment of Jessica Dickey's "The Amish Project," the new solo show at American Theater Company performed by Sadieh Rifai, a telling truth is observed about what invariably happens when an outsider — an "English" in Amish terminology — catches sight of a horse and buggy on some plain-and-fancy trip to rural Lancaster County, Penn., or Holmes County, Ohio, or Elkhart or LaGrange County in northeast Indiana.
You stare — often there are a couple of cute kids staring back from the cart — and you first wonder about the hats, the beards, the lack of electricity, the resolute determination to live according to non-materialistic values and so on. And then, at least for a fleeting second, you ask yourself a question: "Could I be better?"
I've surely asked that very thing, fresh from some Amish-themed, all-you-can-eat buffet or another. The Amish seem to demand it of us — even though they would, of course, rather we kept away.
One certainly sees why Dickey, a young actor-playwright from Pennsylvania, wanted to create a show for herself about what happened in Nickel Mines, Penn., five years ago on Sunday, when a gunman, a local milkman, walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse and ended up killing five girls and himself. Here was a potent symbol of the how modern American violence can assault even those who put every fiber of their being into living apart. And if you remember that day in 2006, you might also recall how the Amish community immediately said, though their spokesman, that they forgave the gunman. Events of unspeakable violence are hardly unknown on American soil. But it is hard to think of another moment when CNN broadcasted a call for immediate forgiveness, rather than anger or a declaration of intent for revenge. The community even shared money that was collected for the victims with the gunman's widow.
That widow shows up, sort of, as one of the fictionalized characters in Dickey's piece, as do some of the victims and neighbors. But Dickey, who seemingly borrows here from a style of oral theatrical history popularized and mastered by Anna Deavere Smith, did not go to Nickel Mines and forge material by interviewing those involved. Thus unlike with, say, Smith's "Fires in the Mirror" or the piece "columbinus," you don't get copious amounts of original dramatic reportage revealing new facts and deeper truths. You get a writer's impression of events and characters, but they only go so deep in a 65-minute affair that often seems to reluctant to fully seize the horror of its own implications.
Dickey tries to explore the shootings without recourse to sensationalism and with both integrity and compassion. You feel that in her monologue. Among the many useful explorations here are the differences among the Amish themselves, a diversity that is typically overlooked in the news media. But you don't ever feel like you have a full picture of the impact of that day (and for various formative and other reasons, I found the inclusion of the dead killer to be a strange choice). Dickey struggles to really get at the silent pain of the bereaved. Understandably. It was, after all, hidden. Still, we go to the theater for insight. And while you can understand Dickey's laudable reluctance to exploit the real-time tension of the actual event for dramatic purposes, no fully workable theatrical structure replaces the obvious.
Working under the direction of PJ Paparelli, Rifai has the tough assignment of playing all these characters and this skilled, genuine actress has many powerful and moving moments. But on occasion, she tends to fall into the trap of making her characters seem like performers — they all press their ideas or personalities upon you — rather than people simply talking to another concerned individual. Projects like this need that crucial sense of intimate revelation, and the characters require more precise, distinguishing details than they all get here, much honest work notwithstanding. William Boles' setting — which gorgeously evokes the dignity and fragility of rural Pennsylvania — is certainly enveloping. And as horrible as the matter under discussion surely was, there is a lesson there for all.
When: Through Oct. 23
Where: 1909 W. Byron St.
Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Tickets: $35-$50 at 773-409-4125 or atcweb.org