Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Is it really an "Amish Project" if it isn't Amish, and it isn't a project?

Circuit Theatre's The Amish Project

I confess I'm writing today about a production I almost decided not to cover at all - The Amish Project, by Jessica Dickey, which the new Circuit Theatre Company gave its Boston premiere a little over a week ago.  For the news regarding the show is bad - which is precisely the kind of news I don't like delivering to a fledgling troupe making its first theatrical flights.

Indeed, Circuit seems like everything a young theatre company should be - ambitious, idealistic, full of smarts and talent - and staffed largely by college kids from the likes of Brown and other artsy redoubts. (Full disclosure: one of the company's directors is an acquaintance of the Hub Review.) The kind of troupe we need more of, right? Of course right!

So it's with a heavy heart that I turn a cold critical eye toward The Amish Project - but then I feel I'm forced to; for the production's real interest lay in the way it revealed, like some unconscious x-ray, disturbing truths about the myopia of the idealistic, ambitious, college theatre scene. Indeed, The Amish Project tells us much more about the illusions and delusions of our current liberal-arts culture than it does about the Amish.

The very name of the text - "The Amish Project" - conjures memories of the famous Laramie Project, and other "verbatim theatre" efforts by the likes of Moisés Kaufman and his comrades-in-arms. And like Laramie, The Amish Project focuses on a crime - although not a single murder but a massacre: the terrible Nickel Mines schoolhouse shooting in 2006, in which gunman Charles Roberts killed five Amish schoolgirls (and wounded five more) before turning his gun on himself.

It says something terrible about our culture, I think, that this event should have so quickly faded from the collective memory - and my first reaction to The Amish Project was something like "High time someone took this on!" But it turned out the details of that dreadful day weren't entirely lost to me - indeed, from the very first line of The Amish Project, I sensed internal doubts building about what I was seeing and how it was being presented.

But it all seemed so spare, so heartfelt, I kept telling myself - could these nice, intelligent, talented young actresses really be feeding me a line of sentimental bull?

Well - it turns out they were. First, The Amish Project wasn't actually a "project" - at least not in the way The Laramie Project was. The playwright, Jessica Dickey, has admitted that she interviewed no Amish people for the play, and I don't get the impression she did much research into Amish culture or history either, or even read up on the horrific event itself - for she mis-represents, in ways large and small, almost everything she dramatizes. Indeed, as I suspected at the time, even the play's very first line - which announces that a man has "entered an Amish school . . . and opened fire" is blatantly false. 

It just didn't happen that way. (Dickey repeats the line several times, but that doesn't make it true.) Charles Roberts did not march into the schoolhouse at Nickel Mines and open fire; the story is far more complicated than that. And truth remains in short supply throughout the rest of the text, which conjures characters who weren't there, and a timeline that doesn't match the circumstances of the crime, while flattening the killer's elusive motives into a simplistic rape narrative - while twisting his widow's character into something that doesn't map at all to reality (she's portrayed here as Amish; she wasn't, and isn't).

In short, The Amish Project should really be titled "My Fantasy Amish Play," as it's basically Jessica Dickey's white-chick musings on how she would feel if she were Amish, or how she would feel if she were married to a killer, or . . . well, you get the idea. If for some reason you're really interested in Jessica Dickey - who is by all accounts a lovely and talented actress - then her play is for you. (Indeed, this innocent piece of cultural colonialism is rather obviously what we used to call a vehicle, not a "project" - Dickey played all the parts herself in a one-woman show in New York.)

If, however, you are instead actually interested in the Amish, or how they managed to forgive the killer  who mowed down their daughters . . . well, I'm afraid you'll have to look elsewhere.

Of course that question - how the Amish forgave Charles Roberts - is probably the unique aspect of the tragedy - the "hook," if you will, that still tugs at our collective memory. In a supposedly Christian nation, the Amish stood out in their ability to forgive a terrible sin against them in exactly the way Jesus commanded. Indeed, we still can't quite believe they actually acted the way Christians are supposed to!  (There's probably a very black comedy to be spun from that response to the tragedy, btw.)

Charles Roberts
But the Amish did, seemingly, forgive the murderer (at left). They went to his funeral; they prayed for his soul. They reached out to his widow and his family - some of whom reached back (very touchingly, Roberts' mother has become intimately involved in the ongoing care of the girls who suffered life-changing injury at her son's hand).

All this does, indeed, cry out for a verbatim-theatre "project." In fact even cursory research into the events of that fateful day reveals all sorts of resonant detail that Dickey simply leaves out (the killer walked his own kids to the bus stop, for instance, before arming himself and heading to that lonely schoolhouse). And the massacre played out like some harrowing script by Tarantino; the gunman came equipped with lumber to seal himself up with the little girls; a lone teacher escaped, dashing to the one farmhouse where she thought there might be a phone; the police arrived within minutes, and might have saved the victims, but were held back by orders from headquarters . . . even the Wikipedia account of the shooting is more gripping than this play; if Dickey had done any of her homework at all, she easily could have produced a devastating piece of theatre. But then actual research would have forced the playwright to come to terms with the bottom line regarding the forgiveness of the Amish: it could only have happened within a specific religious framework; there was nothing "universal" about their actions at all. But while Dickey's script is awash in vague, secular "spirituality," it doesn't evince even a hint of anything like true religious faith.

Instead, it's high-end grief porn, which is okay if you're in the mood for a good cry, I suppose. But you couldn't argue its reverent, tear-soaked muddle ever amounts to drama. The actresses of Circuit Theatre do thoughtful, detailed jobs with the material they have - Emma Johnson and Mackenzie Dreese were probably the stand-outs in the capable cast - but that material only essentially exists as a vehicle for choral emoting (or refraining from emoting) in various keys. And while director Alexandra Keegan seems awfully thoughtful and nice too, she also seems utterly unaware of the monotony and lack of focus that dog Dickey's script. At least designer Adam Wyron contributed an evocative set, that seemed to tap somewhat into the alien spareness of Amish culture - and the amazing grace that in this case flowed from it.  Otherwise, the orbiting mysteries of what happened at Nickel Mines - the riddle of Charles Roberts, and the enigma of the Amish - remained completely intact; untouched, even. But neither question proved as perplexing to me as the one I asked myself as I left the theatre - "Why did such smart kids tackle such a weak play?"

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