What do you do after a tragedy like the Marathon bombing? Mourn for your fellow Bostonians. Donate to a fund. Visit Copley Square. Try to find something to bring joy back. Promise to make every encounter, every day a better one. Practice kindness.
But forgiving the bombers is not on my list. That’s what the Amish did in 2006 when a gunman entered a school house, sent the little boys outside and murdered the little girls, one by one, then killed himself. The Amish community brought food, comfort and forgiveness to the wife and children of the gunman. THE AMISH PROJECT (at the Cambridge Y Theater through June 27th) is playwright Jessica Dickey’s lyrical attempt to grasp the unknowable after the unthinkable has happened.
THE AMISH PROJECT is reminiscent of Moises Kaufman’s THE LARAMIE PROJECT because much of the dialogue seems testimonial, as if playwright Dickey had interviewed town folk and relatives of the murdered girls. At other times, the dialogue is internal, as if Dickey were privy to what the gunman (or his widow) thought about their Amish neighbors. And magically, we hear what the victims felt when they died and what they feel now that they reside in the spiritual world.
The Circuit Theatre Company production, lovingly directed by Alexandra Keegan, unfolds like a poem, the first stanzas chanted over and over: “Man enters a school. Man enters a school. Man enters……” Dickey introduces us to characters in hazy snatches: A little girl who loves hats (She even draws them on Jesus) plays with her older sister until her mother calls them in. Mother sews quilts and holds her girls close. Another mother seems distraught, scratching her own skin raw. The poem becomes dark, sinister. We can feel the change in the language, the rhythm of the piece.
Dickey has an ethereal style and a nice momentum going until she switches gears and the scenes (monologues) get longer. One peripheral character gets a whole story as if it were her play instead of the murder play, although a thread connects the two at the end. The outstanding actors make it all work, but I felt the play was out of joint when it ceased being poetic—and when the end wasn’t clear: Gorgeous, hymn-like harmonies begin the play and at the hour mark, they return as if to book end it. It seemed to me that it could, should end there and then—but peculiarly, there are ten or fifteen more minutes devoted to the widow of the murderer.
Dickey has lovely ideas in her play, like the notion that all the “fighting” we do messes up the world and causes violence. Swedenborgians believe in a similar imbalance that causes pain, as do many Eastern religions. One issue she did not raise, that I wish she had (and she had the opportunity since the gunman targeted only female children) is the frequency with which women are the victims of mass killings, like Newtown where all the adults who were murdered were female (teachers). What does that say about the value of women in this world?
Dickey’s play certainly benefits from Circuit’s remarkable cast (and from Adam Wyron’s expansive barn of a schoolhouse): Janett “Becky” Bass in multiple, male and female roles like the caring Amish mother, capable community spokesman and plucky high school student/ compassionate salesclerk; Mackenzie Dreese and Anne Kocher as playful sisters, delighting in their innocent dreams; Emma Johnson as the distraught widow of the shooter and Karin Nilo as the tortured gunman: powerful performances, every one.
P.S. I find plays which dissect violence step by step, extremely difficult to watch. Any time you turn on a television, that’s practically all you see: Real (news), imagined (CSI, NSA, FBI, CIA) and recreated (crime tv). This is the second play this spring I’ve seen about school shootings and, for me, it’s just too painful.