Jessica Dickey’s 2009 play The Amish Project sometimes feels like The Laramie Project in miniature: an attempt to understand a vicious, real-world act of violence by filtering its aftermath through the community that must carry its burden. Here, instead of a full cast playing more than 60 people across nearly two-and-a-half hours, a single actor plays seven people for a brisk 80 minutes.
But there’s another key difference. The 2006 murder of five Amish schoolgirls in Lancaster County, Pa., that inspired the play was not a hate crime, like the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. It was an act that reflects the last 20 years of American life’s nearly banal feeling of constant horror: A man with a gun shoots children and then himself because he can. But the Amish quickly forgave the murderer for his actions and split all charitable donations with his family, a remarkable sign of compassion the play struggles to explore.
Actress Holly Twyford directs The Amish Project with a searing intimacy in the tiny black box of the Anacostia Arts Center. She and the Factory 449 theater collective have recreated the look and feel of the one-room schoolhouse where the massacre occurred, with a blackboard, a chair, a bench, a windowpane, and a piece of chalk as star Nanna Ingvarsson’s onstage companions. Twyford avoids any hints of Headline News luridness, a blessed sign of restraint. (Another welcome absence: Any sound of gunshots.) If the audience seats came with tiny desks, the immersion would be complete.
Twyford is an actor’s director, putting as little as possible between us and Ingvarsson, apart from the bouncy lighting cues that signal shifts in perspective. Ingvarsson meets Twyford’s challenge. She toggles from an exuberant child to a hysterical widow to a stately professor, often taking on several voices in the span of one minute (or midsentence), yet her personalities still feel instantly lived-in. The chalk is an effective prop, as Ingvarsson draws aspects of Amish culture, Biblical sayings, and the faces of the victims on the board and the floor, making harsh stabs or swoops when filling in the more disturbing details.
Yet as good as Ingvarsson is, even she can’t save the play’s structural flaws. Though she’s playing a wide assortment of characters, few are actually Amish, highlighting the fact that Dickey was writing about an intensely private people from an outsider’s perspective. Then there’s the woefully misconceived pregnant Latina teenager, who serves no clear purpose beyond look-at-me-play-everything bragging rights.
The play tiptoes around questions of grief and forgiveness by simply lionizing its subjects, content to make them all-purpose totems of grace and righteousness as seen from the outside. Twyford and Ingvarsson’s best efforts make Dickey’s work effective as a post-traumatic mental whirlwind, but not as a specifically Amish project.