“Didn’t forgive because they wanted to – because they had to”
“Loss is one of the ONLY THINGS WE HAVE IN COMMON”
-notes written by Pastor Steve Ohnsman of Calvary United Church of Christ, Reading, while watching “The Amish Project.” Ohsman led a discussion after Saturday’s performance.
When the Fall Festival of the Arts and WCR Center for the Arts took to advertise their production of “The Amish Project,” it resulted in the most surprising – and disappointing – social media comments I’ve seen in a while (and for Facebook comments, that says a lot). Commenters accused the play, based on the aftermath of the tragic Amish school shooting in Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, of being “tacky” and “profiting off of a tragedy.”
The “angry face” reactions were plentiful. These are strong words (and emojis), especially for a production that the commenters could not possibly have seen. Was Picasso’s “Guernica” “tacky” for artistically depicting the suffering victims of that city’s bombing? Was “The Pianist” “profiting off of” the Holocaust? Art helps us process tragedy. It always has. Fall Festival and the WCR were oh-so contrite when responding to these negative comments, but they didn’t have to justify anything.
“The Amish Project” was a one-woman show written by Jessica Dickey that premiered in 2008. It was soon adapted into a traditional play for multiple actors, performed across the country. WCR planned to host performances in March 2020, but they were postponed for obvious reasons.
In the aftermath of the Nickel Mines tragedy, the Amish community did something that their religion teaches, but left outsiders astounded; they forgave the killer. Some found it saintly. Others found it foolish. “The Amish Project” is supposed to ask why they did such a thing, but sometimes, as the play says, “there is no why.”
The play opens with a haunting Pennsylvania Dutch melody sung by Tana McConnell (simply credited as “Amish Woman”) to young sisters Velda (Genevieve Gagnon) and Anna (Adeline Cosentino). Both are full of life and personality, and are played by fine young actresses.
It becomes immediately clear that Dickey’s script is “The Amish Project”’s greatest asset. The play is lyrical in its descriptions and brilliant as it peels back the layers of its characters.
Dickey humanizes the little girls who were the victims of the massacre, showing their intelligence, their pleasures, their hopes and dreams of a future they never got to see. Like an Amish quilt, Dickey weaves together metaphorical connections with precision and grace; the Amish girls and the martyrs whose stories they act out with sock puppets, Christ’s crown of thorns and the Amish father figure’s straw hat. Some of the threads are easier made than others.
Each character in “The Amish Project” is a representation of a different section of the Lancaster County community, and how they reacted. With wisdom beyond her years, Raycell Diaz Hernandez plays America, a pregnant Puerto Rican teen who calls herself one of “the other other people of Lancaster County.”
With righteous anger, Karyn Reppert plays Sherry, a stupefied local who resents the Amish but is confused by how quick they are to forgive.
Richard Bradbury portrays Bill North, a religious scholar who views the Amish as a mirror we can see ourselves in, a vessel we can pour ourselves into. Both Sherry and Richard’s views refuse to see the Amish as human beings with autonomy – they only see how they are different from “us.”
“The Amish Project” is a story of rebellion against dehumanization, but none are as dehumanized as Carol (Kathleen Harris Brantman), the gunman’s widow. Carol is the emotional center of the play. Sherry blames her for what her husband did. In the minds of the community, she has been reduced to “the crazy guy’s wife,” and she is left alone to cope with that.
Why did her loving husband suddenly commit such a heinous act? Maybe there is no why. Brantman’s performance quickly grows tedious because it lacks variety. She is always furious, shaking, wailing and gnashing teeth. There is never an arc to her emotional instability. We never see her go through the various levels of shock and grief as she processes these emotions.
Throughout the play there is the maddening repetition of a single phrase: “Gunman enters Amish school and opens fire.” The endless recitation of that headline, and the endless replay of the crime scene on television, traumatizes “The Amish Project”’s characters.
It traumatizes all of us, every time a similar tragedy happens. With its title and story of everyday people responding to a tragedy (and ensuing media circus) in their small town, it’s hard not to compare “The Amish Project” to “The Laramie Project.”
John Gancar’s direction shares the austere set, ironic echoes and fourth-wall breaking of many “Laramie Project” productions. But while that play used real names, the characters in “The Amish Project” are ciphers, pieces of shattered glass each broken in a different way.
Obviously, Carol is based on the real-life shooter’s widow, but the names are changed. The real gunman’s name is never said. That is a choice, and it is a good one. But the gunman is a character in the play, given a fake name and portrayed by Daniel Graf. Why? Why should he be allowed to speak? That is perhaps the most complex question “The Amish Project” asks of its audience.
From a purely artistic standpoint, his character adds nothing of value, tells us nothing we didn’t already know. If it was supposed to humanize a monster, it failed. Whenever he opens his mouth, the play stops dead in its tracks. “The Amish Project” is best when it is remembering its victims, their community’s remarkable choice to forgive, and how hard it was for outsiders to handle that forgiveness.