Midway through Jessica Dickey’s riveting re-imagination of the 2006 Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania school shooting, Eddie, the shooter, peers out at the audience and says: “I’ll tell ya right now, I’m ain’t gonna say Why.”
The absence of tidy answers is precisely what makes Dickey’s one-actor play, The Amish Project — produced by Oak Park Festival Theatre (OPFT), Oct. 5 and 6 at Dominican University — must-see theater.
It’s a play that forces us to explore our inner selves and capacity for compassion. Good and evil, light and dark, anger and forgiveness are intertwined in the lives and deaths of the people of this small Pennsylvania community.
In its review of OPFT’s 2017 production of The Amish Project, the Chicago Reader called the play “a riveting meditation on evil, recovery, and the myriad paradoxes of the human psyche.”
In 90 minutes, Dickey compels audiences to confront the unspeakable act of shooting Amish schoolgirls and the anger, confusion and, ultimately, the forgiveness it engenders.
Dickey gives us glimpses into the lives of Anna and Velda, Amish sisters who are shooting victims; Carol, the wife of the shooter; America, a young pregnant Hispanic woman who works at the local grocery store; Sherry, a local woman whose visceral reaction to the murders embodies the general public’s anger and disbelief; and Bill, the college professor who has studied the Amish and serves as a one-man Greek chorus.
And then there is Eddie, the shooter whose twisted motives — like the motives of shooters in massacres like El Paso, Las Vegas or Sandy Hook — are a stew of unknowable pathology and perversity.
From this collision of characters and events — all remarkably brought to life by actor Lydia Berger Gray and director Melanie Keller — emerges the themes of the limits of our forgiveness and our humanity.
Gray plays all seven characters while wearing the same Amish garb, which serves to blur distinctions among victims, town folks and the shooter.
“It has the feeling of a poem,” said Gray of the play. “There are moments that are really beautiful.”
Much of that beauty stems from Amish families’ response to the deaths of their children. In the face of tragedy, they embrace a radical forgiveness that is at once uplifting and provocative. You can’t help but come away from the play without examining your own capacity for forgiveness.
Despite its historical underpinnings, the play is not a screed against the Second Amendment. Rather, it’s a meditation on our ability to confront the evil and the good within ourselves and consider forgiveness.
And the conflict between these larger forces makes for “an amazing piece of theater.”
Keller said the device of one actor inhabiting seven characters creates an intimate relationship with the audience and makes for a profound live theater experience.
“It’s a little like going to church together,” Keller said.
Oak Park Festival Theatre is proud to present this mesmerizing exploration of grief, rage and forgiveness as part of our 45th Anniversary Celebration.
The Amish Project will be presented Oct. 5 and 6 in one 90-minute act at the Martin Recital Hall at Dominican University Performing Arts Center, 7900 W. Division St., River Forest. Tickets available online at oakparkfestival.com or our box office 708-300-9396
Anne Rooney is the Oak Park Festival Theatre Board chairman.