The Amish Project
nytheatre.com review by Kyle Ancowitz
August 10, 2008
In The Amish Project, actor and first-time playwright Jessica Dickey inhabits several characters whose overlapping stories thread around and through an astonishing real-life crime. This piece shows FringeNYC at its finest, relying on nothing more than Dickey's fabulous performance and director Sarah Cameron Sunde's elegant and restrained staging for an insightful drama with real emotional charge. Both artists have talent to spare and the result is a skillful and confident piece that needs to be seen.
Dickey's play is loosely based on the 2006 schoolhouse shooting in Pennsylvania's Amish country, in which several young girls were taken hostage and molested by a local milk truck driver. Five girls were murdered just as the police approached to rescue them. Dickey doesn't dwell on the grisly details of the incident or exploit our fascination with the anti-exoticism of the Old Order Amish. Instead, she chooses to examine the Amish community's response to the tragedy, which was marked by voluminous and unexpected forgiveness.
In her program notes, Dickey is careful to explain that her version is fiction. While the events may seem familiar to cable news junkies, the personalities on the periphery of this sad event were not interviewed and the characters are her own inventions. Dickey and Sunde wisely avoid attempting to explain the incident, preferring an impressionistic retelling that relies more on image and sound. The figures that do appear are drawn with sensitivity, and all evoke sympathy, not merely the victims, which counts as a significant achievement.
What is it that separates a good performance from a great one? I'll tell you: it's an actor's voice. Dickey's supple vocal performance, by turns strident, hoarse, and lilting, bears her up through countless instantaneous character shifts. With support from director Sunde, Dickey leverages quick vocal changes and subtle gestures into a effective, cinematic "cut-scene" effect, all without costume changes or special effects or even props. Dickey embodies men and women of many ages throughout the piece. Her portrayal of a pregnant, 16-year-old Latina living on the margins of the Amish establishment is particularly memorable. As the shooter's widow, she treads a path from the mundane to crushing hurt with delicately inscribed details and touches of surreal poetry.
Dickey's playwriting debut is a notable success; I look forward to more from her. Her strong performance makes the piece all the more satisfying. Sound designer Austin Bunn also deserves praise for sparse, evocative instrumental accents throughout the piece. Full of solid craft and absorbing emotion, The Amish Project should be a stop on your journey to FringeNYC.