Forgiveness is hard. We live in a world that encourages people to nurse their wounds and their grudges, both slight and monumental, with regular airings of grievances on all available social media platforms. So how can we understand a people who embrace forgiveness so fully that within hours of several of their children being murdered, they extend forgiveness to the shooter and condolences to his widow and children?
Those are the sorts of questions raised in The Amish Project, a new show running for only one week of performances at the Fire hall Theatre. Directed by Amy Driscoll, the show fictionalizes the events of October 2, 2006 when a man killed 5 young girls and wounded others in an Amish Schoolhouse in Pennsylvania before committing suicide. The only members of the Amish community who are part of the show are Anna (Maisy Skalicky) and Velda (Addison Foley), who represent two of the girls killed in the shooting; the other characters represent people surrounding the event: the shooter, Eddie Stuckey (Nick McConnell), and his wife Carol (Katie Kleven); Bill North (Frank Sikich), a professor of religious studies and close friend of Aaron Yoder, Anna and Velda’s father; America (Elizabeth Rainee Larson), a pregnant 16-year-old Hispanic woman who works at the local grocery store and encounters Carol Stuckey not long after the shooting; and Sherry Local (Ruth Pederson), a member of the local community whose heated confrontation with Carol in the grocery store is rooted in her own complicated past.
I’m out of practice with whole theatre reviewing thing, so I suppose this is where I should interject and tell you that the rest of the review contains spoilers…lots of them. You might guess that if you already know the story of the shooting that you’ve already got all the spoilers already, but you’d be wrong. As is common in shows like this, the play presents a fictionalized account of the events. The real gunman wasn’t named Eddie Stuckey, and most of the characters in the play represent thoughts or ideas gathered through rigorous studies of the events. The real situation provides the starting point, but the play is something else entirely. So, be ready for some spoilers. I’ll color-code the spoiler-y section in blue so that you can skip to the bottom for show information if you like, until after you watch the production. If you don’t mind spoilers, then read on at your discretion.
This show is about forgiveness, and it’s about what we choose to hold on to and what we choose to let go. It’s very deliberate that the only characters from the Amish community depicted are the two dead girls; the ways of Amish people are often strange and incomprehensible to those of us who live in “the real world” of constantly evolving technology and disposable culture, and that strangeness is just as much a part of this narrative as the shooting itself. Anna and Velda seem so much like regular children, and yet their difference also comes through as they talk about their lives: Velda talks about Anna’s upcoming Rumspringa (a time during adolescence where Amish youth are allowed more freedom in their behavior and must decide whether or not to join the church in full, adult membership) and how during her Rumspringa she wants to wear a bathing suit that shows off her body – but not too much, Anna talks about the “crazy parties” that the Amish can throw (which involve dancing and music, often during a barn-raising in the community), and Velda shares the story of her favorite Anabaptist martyr who was burned at the stake after rescuing his own jailer from drowning. Foley and Skalicky do amazing character work with these girls. Foley’s Velda is precocious and quirky, bringing some light-hearted moments to the often dark material, and Skalicky’s Anna is sort of dreamy but with a conviction to her religious upbringing that seems at once naïve and completely genuine. The girl’s are there to represent the victim’s but they also dramatize the actions of two of the victims, Marian and Barbara Fisher, who asked to be shot first and then second, hoping that others might be spared.
The rest of the cast are people who exist in the world outside of Amish life and community, and who have different relationships to the Amish and to their community. Eddie Stuckey (the character standing in for real life gunman Charles Carl Roberts) is a milk delivery driver who served a route through Amish country, and Nick McConnell brings a stunning performance to the role. His Eddie is not only creepy, but also strangely relatable in certain moments, reminding us that this was a real person and not some fictionalized monster who committed this crime. Kleven’s Carol is bubbling with rage, and she represents the sort of guilt and shame that one might conceivably feel when someone you love deeply has committed an unfathomable crime. How do we reconcile that person we love, the loving husband and father of our children, with the person who murdered and wounded small children? What does it mean to know of the crime, and still feel grief and longing for that person? Carol has no easy answers, and in fact is slowly being consumed by all of the contradictions, and Kleven does an excellent job of embodying that conflict.
Sikich’s Bill North isn’t just there as a professor of religious studies, or to act as a spokesperson for the very private Amish community. He does fulfill that role, but he is chosen for this because he is a first-hand recipient of the forgiveness of the Amish Community. In earlier scenes, he helps guide the audience through understanding the culture and traditions of the Amish, why they are so reclusive, why they escehew certain modern conveniences, and why their capacity for forgiveness endures even in the face of this unthinkable tragedy. He is our guide and our translator, and he’s able to do so because when he was an undergraduate student, he was driving through rural Pennsylvania and hit a young Amish boy on a scooter with his car. In the hospital, the young boy’s parents consoled and comforted him while their child’s future was still uncertain. This experience was transformative for him, and allowed him to better understand the importance of forgiveness. The young boy that he hit would recover and become his close friend – Anna and Velda’s father, Aaron Yoder. Sikich brings a subtly nuanced portrayal to the character, calm and informational to start but deepening as the narrative progresses until the genesis of his relationship with the Amish is revealed.
At first, America’s role in the play, beyond reminding you that all different kinds of people live in and around Amish country, isn’t clear. She’s 16 and pregnant, and Larson’s performance is by turns bubbly and youthful, irrationally self-confident (the way so many teenagers are!), and vulnerable. She talks a lot about her boyfriend and her relationship with her mother, and how she doesn’t want people to think of her as a cliché. Eventually we learn how she is connected to the narrative: she encounters Carol Stuckey in the hygiene aisle of the grocery store, shopping for moisturizer. She is uncharacteristically unnerved by the woman, and doesn’t step in to help her with what she is looking for. Soon after, when Carol is accosted by Sherry Local and runs from the store, America follows to see if she can assist and instead becomes the focus of Carol’s pain and rage. When Carol screams a racist slur at her, and later when her mother refuses to attend Mother Daughter night at school to see America’s speech, we see America fully doubt all of the stories she’s told herself about who she is, and Larson does a wonderful job of showing the character’s self-confidence crumbling and her beginning to accept the perceptions that others have of her. When she related the story of Carol turning up at her home to apologize, we see how this girl and her mother must themselves navigate the tricky landscape of forgiveness.
The final character, Sherry Local, is perhaps the hardest to comprehend, and Pederson’s performance is strong as she embodies the contradictions of a woman who is in many ways unlikable and yet completely relatable. She is the representative of the community at large, the public masses huddled around their tv screens watching the events unfold, making decisions about who people are and what went wrong, and most importantly who is to blame. Her stage time is marked by repetitious lines, specifically the CNN headline: “Man enters Amish schoolhouse and opens fire.” She represents the sort of community reaction, people who feel rage and sadness and fear about the shooting but at the same time struggle with the Amish community’s willingness to immediately offer forgiveness and compassion to the shooter and his family. At one point, discussing her altercation with Carol she says, “Now I’m not proud of what I did…” but it’s a line that leads into a litany of criticisms of the Amish and their customs. It’s like those people who say, “I’m not racist, but…” and then proceed to say some really horribly racist shit. The play attempts to build a scenario to help us see that this rage, this unwillingness to forgive, is rooted in our own sense of self at the center, compared to the Amish who put Jesus and the community first: in her first monologue, Sherry talks about feeling sick about the shooting and how terrible it is, but in a later monologue we realize that most of her rage, especially the rage that causes her to accost Carol Stuckey in the grocery store and tell her that she will eventually join her “sicko husband” in hell, is actually rooted in her own childhood trauma: a math teacher who “touched [her] in a mean way.” She talks about how her mother told her that she would hate that man until she died, and that she would hate him enough for both of them, and that this is how the Amish can forgive – because people like her and the non-Amish community will hold their hatred for them. Her rage at Carol isn’t about the shooting, and it isn’t about the Amish girls who are killed; it’s about her own pain and hurt, her experience as victim that was never acknowledged. It’s self-motivated.
That’s how Sherry and Bill fit into the larger story: Sherry is unable to comprehend the Amish community’s willingness to forgive because the only role she has seen herself in has been victim. She was touched by her math teacher, and the teacher was never punished. Harm was done and there was no justice – how could you ever expect her to forgive? Bill’s perspective is different because he was in the role of perpetrator: his distracted driving nearly killed Aaron Yoder, and yet his family was willing to immediately forgive him and offer him compassion, even before they knew whether or not their child would survive. This is why Bill is chosen as a spokesperson for the Amish community after the shooting; not because he is a professor of religious studies, or because he has been studying and researching the Amish for several decades, but because he is a firsthand recipient of their grace. He knows how it feels to not only witness their propensity for forgiveness, but to receive it for his own actions. Sherry isn’t ready or willing to take that journey, and Bill already has. Carol, as she reveals that she drives every night to the Yoder’s farm and stands outside looking in their windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of Aaron, is on that journey now.
The Amish Project is a powerful composite play, very much in the vein of the perhaps more well-known Laramie Project, that attempts to take a real life tragedy and explore not only the events themselves but what they reveal about the hearts and minds of the communities in which they take place. Jessica Dickey’s one-act play was original conceived as a one-woman show, but the Fire hall wisely filled out the cast with 7 talented actors to really bring a dynamic to the show that would be very much lacking in a cast of just one, no matter how talented. The bare set, just a chalkboard and several doorways, most painted red to symbolize the famous barns of Amish country, is effective in letting the voices of the characters move and change and build a narrative as complex and beautiful as a star quilt (a representation of which was beautifully painted on the floor of the stage by Amy Lyste).
This production is moving and powerful, but it’s not here for long: as of this writing, there are only three performances left – Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm and a 2 pm matinee on Sunday the 2nd. Theatre isn’t just about dressing up and throwing some characters on a stage; it’s entertainment, yes, but good theatre should also raise questions and grapple with ideas, and in that realm this show is one of the best the Fire Hall has produced in recent years. Definitely take the time to go see this show. If you don’t…you’ll never forgive yourself.