ST. PETERSBURG — Katherine Michelle Tanner gives an awesome performance in The Amish Project, Jessica Dickey's solo play based on the shootings of 10 Amish girls, five of whom died, at a one-room school in Nickel Mines, Pa., in 2006.
Dressed in traditional Amish garb of white bonnet and apron, blue cotton dress, black stockings and shoes, Tanner plays all seven characters — from 6-year-old Velda, one of the victims, to Eddie Stuckey, the milk truck driver who was the gunman — in the powerful, upsetting but ultimately thoughtful production at American Stage, directed by artistic director Todd Olson.
Dickey's play, which I saw on Sunday afternoon, is billed as a "fictional exploration" of the schoolhouse shootings in Pennsylvania, but its ideas and emotional vibe could also apply to other mass murders that are all too common these days. On Monday, with news of the bombings at the Boston Marathon, I found myself thinking of The Amish Project, especially Velda's devastating final speech about struggling to find the presence of God in the face of such horrific events.
Tanner's fluency in going from one character to the next is breathtaking. For Velda she is a playful, exuberant figure, making childish drawings in liquid chalk on the plexiglass panels that dominate Greg Bierce's inspired set design, which is framed by the wood beams and posts of an Amish barn raising.
In one of the actor's most uncanny renderings, she portrays Carol, the gunman's widow, as a smart, sympathetic, shell-shocked victim, anxiously smoking, who has the honesty and courage to proclaim that she still loves her husband. The Amish community's instant and unconditional forgiveness of Carol and her two sons is the radical message of the play.
Another bravura character is America, a 16-year-old of Puerto Rican descent who is pregnant and works at the Giant Food, an unexpected fount of shrewd commentary in Dickey's collage of voices (as well as being reminiscent of Anita in West Side Story). Her evocation of Titania from A Midsummer's Night Dream is a theatrical jewel. Velda's 14-year-old sister, Anna, has a deeply unsettling line, repeated like a mantra throughout the play, as she begs the gunman, seeking to spare her schoolmates, "Sir, please shoot me first!" Less vivid are Bill North, a professor who imparts some helpful information about the Amish, and Sherry Local, who vilifies Carol and her "SICKO husband" in a down-home twang.
Eddie comes across as opaque in Dickey's depiction. His own abuse as a child is suggested, not very satisfactorily, as perhaps an explanation for his malignant acts. Tanner plays the milkman with solemn, recessive bluffness, and what is actually most striking in regards to the killer's character is Carol's insistence that he was not a bad guy.
I was looking for something more revealing about Eddie's motives, such as what I got in a phone call from a reader after an advance story I wrote on The Amish Project appeared. He made the useful suggestion that I look into the writings of psychologist Rollo May, who died in 1994 and is somewhat forgotten now, for an understanding of the underlying causes of violence, especially his 1972 book Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence. The play might well have benefited by drawing in some way on such a study of power relations and human behavior rather than simply laying the onus for the murders on Eddie's "dark side."
American Stage went through a searching debate about staging The Amish Project in the wake of Sandy Hook (the play was scheduled months before the elementary school shootings in Connecticut). It was good to have such a discussion, and the company made the right decision to go ahead. Yes, there are some painful moments, but this is exactly the sort of play the theater should be doing in our troubled times.
Rhapsodic benefit: Pianist Mark Markham is the soloist in Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in a concert at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg. His performance is part of a benefit for the Leadership Conservatory for the Arts, a magnet program at Tarpon Springs High School (tarponspringsband.com), to raise money for its marching band to participate in the 2013 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. The student musicians will play with Markham, a Pensacola native who has been the recital partner of soprano Jessye Norman since 1995. $25-$100. Contact Jean Kelly at (727) 612-6945 or visit mypalladium.org.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.