Seems like you can’t throw a tomato near “The Amish Project” without hitting somebody’s good intentions. There’s playwright-thesp Jessica Dickey, who wants to explore the nature of forgiveness; the show’s impressive legion of funders, including playwright Christopher Shinn and other notables; even the theater itself seems sort of saintly by association. Dickey does a terrific acting job under helmer Sarah Cameron Sunde, but the treatment of the Amish as quasi-magical beings ultimately sinks the ship. Dickey has picked a fascinating story, but she’s neglected the humanity of its most interesting characters.
“The Amish Project” epitomizes the disparity between Off Broadway and the New York Intl. Fringe Festival, where the show began. Performed by a talented actress with a clear dedication to her craft, the solo piece is head and shoulders above much of Dickey’s Fringe competish but not quite up to par by commercial production standards. It’s easy to see how it got produced, but it’s not quite ready for primetime.
The play tracks the aftermath of one of the most horrifying domestic news items of the past couple of years. In October 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV, a man with either indications of mental illness or an unrecorded history of pedophilia (he called his wife and confessed to the latter shortly before his death, but none of his alleged victims corroborated his confession), took hostage 10 Amish girls between the ages of 6 and 13 in a Pennsylvania schoolhouse and shot them all, killing five. He then turned the gun on himself.
As fictionalized versions of Roberts, his wife, two of the dead girls and a few other characters, Dickey admirably avoids the story’s tabloid aspects — Pervert Murders Harmless Pacifists’ Children — and instead explores the Amish community’s almost unfathomable response to the situation: unconditional forgiveness.
Dickey’s point seems to be that the Amish forgive their enemies just as Jesus forgives them, and the world could probably stand another production or two that makes peace and forgiveness its principal virtues. Where the show jumps the tracks, though, is in the conflation of Christ and his followers — we need to know that these people are human. From Dickey’s description, they seem to be perfect examples of Christian charity, a great thing to come across in the real world but not necessarily the most compelling dramatic device.
The other problem with the piece is a subplot about a stereotypical 16-year-old convenience store clerk who encounters Roberts’ wife. Again, the message — everybody’s got problems — isn’t bad, but the character’s loud references to Shakespeare don’t do anyone any favors, and Dickey’s Hispanic accent is a real stumbling block.
To her credit, anything insulting in this show is undoubtedly unintentional. Dickey refuses to demonize anyone, even Roberts himself, in a solo show she performs (for the most part) extremely well. But the production’s overwhelming gentleness is not always an asset.