On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, armed for mayhem with a load of supplies that included multiple weapons, K-Y jelly, and plastic ties. He dismissed 15 boys and several adult women he found there. That left ten girls, six to 13 years old, whom he bound with the ties. One of them, Marian Fisher, reportedly asked to be killed in place of the others. Instead, Roberts, a 32-year-old commercial milk-truck driver with a wife and three kids of his own, shot all ten girls “execution-style.”
Three died in the schoolhouse, two more soon after arriving at a hospital. The five others survived, but suffered devastating wounds, the least severe of which “will be disabling for a long time, if not permanently,” according to a pediatrician familiar with their cases. Roberts committed suicide as police smashed windows to get at him.
In a gesture the rest of America seemed to find at once saintly and unfathomable, the Nickel Mines Amish community forgave Roberts. They and other area residents went out of their way to show kindness to his widow and children.
Now getting its Chicago premiere with American Theater Company, Jessica Dickey’s The Amish Project picks up on Roberts’s atrocity and its strangely pacific aftermath. For a little over an hour, a single actor switches off among seven characters, playing the gunman, his wife, two of the girls, two non-Amish local women, and a scholar who mediates between the Amish and the outside world.
The piece’s title, subject matter, and direct-address performance style invite comparisons with The Laramie Project, Moisés Kaufman’s stage documentary about the 1998 hate-crime murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. But where The Laramie Project is constructed mainly from excerpted interviews with actual Laramites, Dickey calls her script a “fictional exploration of a true event.” In a program note she explains that she “absorbed a great deal about the Nickel Mines shooting just from watching the news” and read books on the “Amish themselves” but purposely “did not research the gunman or his widow, nor did I conduct any interviews.”
Why? To balance her “conflicting desires to remain sensitive to the real people who were affected by the shooting, while giving myself creative license to write an unflinching play.”
The result is an odd exercise in pretense. The crime described here is obviously the one Roberts committed. The setting is a place called Nickel Mines. The victims are ten Amish girls trapped in a schoolhouse. And the gunman himself is depicted as a seemingly regular guy with a wife and kids. Yet Dickey calls him Eddie Stuckey. Likewise, the character corresponding to Marian Fisher is named Anna Yoder.
It’s hard to imagine how a conceit this flimsy solves Dickey’s dilemma—but that doesn’t matter as long as it freed her to be unflinching, right? And Dickey certainly seems to feel no compunction about putting words in the mouths of Eddie and Anna as opposed to Charles and Marian.
Still, The Amish Project doesn’t yield anything all that revelatory. Affecting, often clever, yes, but not terribly original. The killer is a broken soul in a family man’s body. The little girls are innocents—one in a sunny way, the other more gravely so. The Amish are opaque in their God-fearing simplicity, the non-Amish townsfolk transparent in their secular complexity. Indeed, Dickey’s efforts are reductive at times. Eddie’s wife, Carol, in particular, seems dumber, more of a standard-issue redneck than Roberts’s widow comes across as being in the reporting about her.
Thank God, then, for Sadieh Rifai, who plays each character with openhearted craft under P.J. Paparelli’s direction. Rifai is especially strong as Anna’s little sister Velda, giving her a charm that’s as solidly observed as it is merciless. But she differentiates and vivifies everyone. If Dickey found it necessary to remove Roberts and his victims from their reality, Rafai finds ways to bring them back to life.
Timothy Douglas clearly wanted to make a statement with his first production as artistic director of Remy Bumppo Theatre. And he has. Only I doubt it’s the one he intended to make. Throwing over the smart, tight, verbally playful stuff—the Stoppards, Albees, and Wildes—for which Remy Bumppo is known, Douglas decided to go big, high, and daunting with Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra.
Written as a trilogy, updating The Oresteia to Civil War-era New England, MBE is a shaggy, lumpy, self-consciously Freudian beast even in the “fast-moving” three-and-a-half hour adaptation Douglas uses. Bumppo stars like David Darlow, Annabel Armour, and Nick Sandys aren’t suited to it and come off looking marooned. In fact, only a non-ensemble member, Scott Stangland, makes a strong impression—and that’s because his character, returning hero Orin Mannon, has all kinds of PTSD-induced mannerisms Stangland can play on. The rest of the show is tedious and pretentious, and the statement it makes is, Challenge your actors but respect their skills.