Jessica Dickey’s play The Amish Project is based on the 2006 Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania shooting, in which gunman Charles Roberts entered an Amish school, killing five young girls and injuring five others before turning the gun on himself. The events garnered additional national attention as a result of the Amish community extending forgiveness to the gunman and his family.
Although her title contains within it an echo of Moisés Kaufman and Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project, the award-winning work assembled from interviews with townsfolk from the Wyoming community where Matthew Shepard was murdered, Dickey’s play does not purport to be documentary theatre. Indeed, she states explicitly in her Playwright’s Note to the published text (which I happen to be teaching in my Introduction to Drama class at SFU) that she deliberately chose not to interview any of the survivors or members of the wider Nickel Mines community. Instead, she has fashioned a completely imaginative work of empathetic drama, in which she draws on the basic outlines of the shooting and its aftermath to trace the connections between seven different characters. These include Velda and her sister Anna, two victims of the shooting; Carol Stuckey, the widow of the gunman; Bill North, a religious studies professor with special expertise in the Amish; Sherry Local, a cranky woman from the town who confronts Carol in the supermarket; Eddie Stuckey, the gunman; and America, a pregnant Hispanic teenager who works at the supermarket.
The play’s added conceit is that all of these characters are played by a single actress, who wears a “traditional, Old Order Amish girl” costume throughout (blue cotton knee-length dress, white apron and bonnet), and who thus must transition between each character—sometimes multiple times in the space of a page of dialogue—simply by shifting the way she holds her body, or through her tone of voice. In the play’s original production, at Rattlestick Theater in New York in 2009, Dickey herself undertook this task, and by all accounts gave a virtuoso performance. In Pacific Theatre’s current production of the play, which runs through next Saturday at their West 12th Avenue space, the performer is Susie Coodin, who with assistance from director Evan Frayne and movement consultant Wendy Gorling, opts for subtle rather than jarringly sharp vocal and gestural distinctions between each character. Velda is restlessly kinetic and speaks with a higher vocal pitch, whereas Anna remains still and speaks more slowly, though always, despite the events that have happened, with a guileless sense of wonder about what she is witnessing. Carol draws her arms tightly around her upper body, as if trying to retreat from the world, or else protect herself from what additional bad news it might deliver. Interestingly, Coodin likewise keeps her arms mostly close to her body when playing Carol’s nemesis, Sherry, the nervous fluttering of the latter’s hands over her stomach indicative perhaps of the nauseous bile she can barely keep down. Bill, at first a largely expositional character, remains professorially erect, whereas Eddie slouches and shoves his hands in his pockets. The sassy America, who calls us out from the start on our wont to read her as a cliché, predictably spends a lot of time examining her fingernails.
Though I would have liked Coodin to take a bit more time with some of the dialogue, and in certain places to stretch out the moments of physical transition between the characters (the show clocks in at a very economical 65 minutes), I did appreciate how these dramaturgical choices emphasized continuity in addition to difference. James Coomber’s evocative sound design and Jonathan Kim’s mixing of warm and cool tones in his lighting also contributed to this prismatic effect. And the metaphor of the prism—a refractive surface, like a stained glass window, that separates light into a spectrum of colours—is an apt one here because when used figuratively the word refers to the clarification or the distortion offered by a particular viewpoint. In a play that is about the difficult work of reciprocal empathy, and that suggests receiving forgiveness is often as challenging and painful as extending it, materializing the idea of a shared feeling body and many voices thus makes absolute sense.