How do you forgive the unforgivable? That is the theme of The Amish Project, a one-woman play by Jessica Dickey based on the real-life murder of Amish schoolgirls in Pennsylvania. But coming just a few months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, and amid the often contentious debate on gun control and school safety, is now the right time for such a play? Will audiences stay away? And should that matter to the theater? "Yes, the play is about a school shooting, but the play is also about what you do with it afterward," says Meg Heimstead, director of education at American Stage. "How do you respond to violence? How do you move forward? And the idea of forgiveness and what does that mean? How do we do that both individually and as a community?"
After the 2006 schoolhouse shooting in Nickel Mines, Pa., in which a milk truck driver shot 10 students, killing five and himself, the Amish community immediately issued a statement that said it forgave him. Members of the community even attended the gunman's funeral and comforted his widow.
Starring Katherine Michelle Tanner, costumed in Amish garb, Dickey's play opens this weekend at American Stage, but it almost didn't happen in the wake of the shootings in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 students and six educators. In late December, the theater's board went through an agonizing debate before deciding to go ahead with the production, which had been announced months before the Connecticut massacre.
"Time has helped," says Todd Olson, the company's artistic director who is directing The Amish Project. "In December we were in mourning, grievous mourning, and wanted nothing to do with a play that involved a schoolhouse or children or a gun. Time really reframes a lot of things. It will be about 100 days since the events in Newtown, and now I think we can evaluate this more on its human story and what it has to say about better things in the human spirit."
Dickey's play is a "fictional exploration" of the Nickel Mines killings. Tanner plays seven characters that include two girls who were victims of the shooting, the gunman, his widow and three townspeople, including a professor on Amish culture and a 16-year-old Hispanic grocery clerk.
"It's a collage of characters, with different ages, different points of view, different needs," Tanner says of the play, which runs just over an hour and is performed without intermission. "It unfolds really quickly. I use different voices, different movement for each characterization."
For example, Tanner plays Eddie, the gunman in the play, at "a slower tempo," she says. "He's the guy next door who's forgettable. He's just like everyone else. He's the milkman."
The set design by Greg Bierce features the posts and beams of an Amish barn raising plus 10 plexiglass panels. These suggest schoolroom chalkboards, on which Tanner, as 6-year-old Velda, does drawings. The childlike depiction will likely carry an emotional punch for the audience. So will a recurring scene in which Velda and her sister, Anna, 14, confront Eddie.
"Sir, please shoot me first!" Anna says.
"Please, shoot me second!" Velda says.
"I shot 'em! Each one. In the head. Then I shot myself," Eddie says.
Olson thinks that Dickey's play avoids sensationalizing the shooting. "Jessica doesn't linger on morbid details," he says. "But we do get enough that it's uncomfortable."
Nor does The Amish Project concern itself with such things as gun control. "It's not political in the least," Olson says. "It stays completely on the human story."
Bierce hopes that theatergoers will give the play a chance. "I don't think it will turn people away," he says. "Even though it is about something that is very violent and horrible, the Amish ended up forgiving this man and his family. The play isn't about violence. It's about forgiveness."
Olson acknowledges that some American Stage audience members have expressed impatience to him about the number of supposedly dark plays the theater has done lately.
"I think if people decided they didn't want to come to see this because they think it's a sensitive issue that they didn't want to open themselves up to right now, I think they would miss a terrifically human, uplifting piece of theater," he says. "It's required us to be brave. I think if people are true theatergoers they will summon the same bravery, and it will be worth it."
So far, ticket sales are meeting projections. "People aren't shying away from it," marketing director Roman Black says. Few of the theater's more than 3,000 subscribers have asked to switch tickets to other plays.
However, attendance could still suffer because The Amish Project is essentially competing with two other American Stage productions. For the next two weeks, it will alternate on the main stage with When the World Was Green (A Chef's Fable), a two-person play by Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin. In late April and early May, it will be up against the mass appeal of the company's springtime park production, this year the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
"To have two mainstage productions plus the park is tricky," Black says. "From an audience standpoint, all attention tends to go out to the park once that gets under way."
To put Dickey's play and its horrific subject matter in context, American Stage has organized an extensive public education program, including five talkbacks and a community forum with civic leaders in education, mental health, law enforcement and the media. Heimstead chose not to get directly into gun regulation issues with the program, though the community forum panel on May 5 will include an officer with the Pinellas schools police department.
"We tended to stay away from the politics of it," she says. "At least in terms of bringing in a political person as a panelist or a guest at a talkback. I'm sure it will come up."
Though there is an Amish community in and around Sarasota, home of the popular Yoder's Amish Village restaurant, members of the community declined to be involved in discussion of Dickey's play. "The Amish are very reluctant to speak out," Heimstead says.
American Stage has enlisted a partner for the production, CASA (Community Action Stops Abuse), the battered women's shelter in St. Petersburg. Donations taken at the community forum will go to the shelter.
"The play talks about a lot of the ideas that we talk about," says Linda Osmundson, executive director of CASA, who finds linkages between domestic violence and events like school shootings. She notes that at Nickel Mines the gunman let the boys go and focused on the girls in the one-room schoolhouse.
"Why were girls chosen as victims?" she asks. "I think that's very telling. It's telling in the sense that women still feel diminished by some people in our society who think we aren't equal. I think this play will make people think. I think it will enrage some people. I think some people will be astonished by the Amish reaction to the killings."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.