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'The Amish Project' examines notions of forgiveness amidst harrowing tragedy

"The Amish Project" at Chester Theatre Company

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It’s easy to say that one forgives, but in reality it more often than not proves to be a much more complex process than one initially realizes. Thus, when ten Amish schoolgirls were shot, five of which were killed, by a supposedly deranged gunman in October 2006 in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, the country was even further shocked by the Amish community’s quick expression of forgiveness toward the killer and their compassionate outreach to his surviving family.

Allison McLemore in a scene from "The Amish Project" at the Chester Theatre Company
Rick Teller Chester Theatre Company
Allison McLemore as young Velda in "The Amish Project"
Rick Teller, Chester Theatre Company

That incident and ensuing recovery inspired playwright-actress Jessica Dickey to write “The Amish Project,” a harrowing and involving play that, although fictional, remains incredibly true to the essential events of the day and to the acts of forgiveness and resilience in the aftermath. The play is now receiving a fluent, gripping revival that opened on Thursday night, August 14 at the Chester Theatre Company in Chester, Mass., a small tight-knit community that probably resembles Nickel Mines in a variety of ways.

Under the obviously thoughtful direction of Daniel Elihu Kramer, the Associate Artistic Director of the CTC, “The Amish Project” is written for one actor who is required to portray a number of characters associated with the incident, including two of the schoolgirls, the shooter’s widow, a college professor trying to help the local community understand the Amish, a young Hispanic checkout clerk, a Southern housewife relocated to the community and even the shooter himself. This is not an easy part to play, not only because of the differing ages and accents of the characters, but because, as the play builds to its climax, Dickey switches between perspectives so quickly and frequently that an actor has very little time to think.

Fortunately for CTC audiences, the amazing Allison McLemore has returned to eschew this role, and she has clearly mastered all of its difficult challenges. She creates individualized and distinguishable personalities for each of her seven characters and demonstrates an ability to transform into a different one at a moment’s notice. This is complicated by the fact that the playwright requests that the actor remain dressed in typical Amish garb throughout the play, with the apron, the solid maroon dress and the bonnet, requiring McLemore to use her vocal skills and body movements to cue the audience in as to which character is speaking at any time.

The playwright, however, has made sure that her seven characters are of differing ages, use different accents, or are of different sexes, in the case of the shooter and the college professor whose specialty has been studying the Amish. McLemore utilizes every one of these opportunities to easily move between the characters so that the audience retains a clear understanding of just what is happening. There were a few times where it became unclear which character happened to be addressing the audience, particularly in the case of Sherry Local, the Southern emigrate, and Carol Stuckey, the widow of Eddie Stuckey, the fictionalized name of the shooter. Because Kramer generally places both of these characters on the similar side of the stage, an inattentive moment may result in some confusion as to who is talking.

But that really is a minor point compared to rewardingly rich characterizations that McLemore is able to create. Most adorable is little Velda, a young schoolgirl, who initially serves as our guide and interpreter into the world and culture of the Amish. Using a transparent blackboard, McLemore adopts the thick Pennsylvania Dutch accent of a young child to introduce us to the customs of the community and the role of the family. She dons a wry, mischievous smile to depict Velda’s secret obsessions with the tall, black, stovepipe like hats of the Amish males, which she proceeds to draw not only onto the men, but onto the horse who draws the family buggy and the family’s dog and cats. Her Velda speaks with a helpful, aim to please innocence that nicely anchors the story.

McLemore subsequently morphs into Anna, Velda’s much-admired older sister. As she speaks to us, we realize that her perspective is taking her literally up above the community, transcending space as well as time as she sees the school building having been torn down, making us realize that she is speaking from the other side, probably a victim of that day’s events. Her Anna is filled with very believable teenage awe and yearning as she adjusts to a new way of living that places her as a silent witness to the grief and sadness, while offering a new sense of peace.

Her most complex role is that of Carol Stuckey, who McLemore fills with an uncomfortable mix of anger, discomfort, resentment and rage, especially when a group of Amish show up at her home unannounced in the hours after the shooting with food and other items and proceed to join her in mourning. Her Carol is filled with guilt not only over her husband’s horrific actions, but also because she still misses him and is also filled with concern over the welfare of her three children. It turns out the Amish, in a rare move, have agreed to accept outside contributions because of the impact of the shootings on so many families, and have announced that Carol and family will also benefit from those proceeds.

On a quick run to the lotion aisle at the local supermarket, Carol will have a run in with the insensitive Sherry and be eventually aided by the Puerto Rican clerk, America, who we will learn through her monologues is pregnant at 17, which is a year younger than her mother was when she became pregnant with her. We will learn how America and her mother ended up in Nickel Mines and it offers a studied contrast to Sherry’s story, while mirroring in some ways the Amish’s own idea of community.

McLemore also handles her two male roles with finesse, including the few excruciatingly dark thoughts of Eddie, who possessed by some sort of madness describes an intent to molest some of the girls although he has no record of such activity, and the rage, after he dismisses the boys in the classroom, toward the young Amish girls. Her Professor Bill North is an example of calm and earnestness as he strives to share his knowledge of Amish ways with interested locals while an Amish elder looks on. North’s surprising connection to this elder, and the audience’s subsequent discovery of the elder’s role at Carol’s home and his personal tie to the events within the schoolhouse will prove shattering.

That McLemore (and playwright Dickey) are able to accomplish all this within 70 intermissionless minutes is quite an achievement. In addition to acknowledging Kramer’s tight direction, special notice must be made of James McNamara’s lighting design which through frequent cues and changes helps to detail the changes of location and character. Emily Dunn has clothed McLemore in an accurate recreation of an Amish woman’s garb, while Travis A. George’s set places the action and multiple perspectives into an ethereal landscape backed by three horizontal panels that depict a drawing of the Amish country landscape with the original schoolhouse looming in the background.

McLemore is a brave actress to take on such a complex role, but she indeed manages to endear herself to the audience by the end of the play, when she returns us to both Verda, who from behind the transparent writing board gives us a visual accounting of the events to tremendous effect, and Anna, who ventures down Travis George’s three steps in front of his set, to speak the play’s final words amidst a stunned, yet grateful audience.

“The Amish Project” plays through August 24 at the Chester Theatre Company. For information and tickets, call the theater at 413.354.7771 or visit their website at www.chestertheatre.org.