Reviewing The Rep's tale of forgiveness, “The Amish Project.”

I don’t know how Jessica Dickey decided on the title for her rich and deeply felt one-woman play, The Amish Project, which opened this weekend at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. But I like to think it is a purposeful allusion to a similar, groundbreaking piece of theater—The Laramie Project, Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project’s play about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.

For the differences between these two “projects” are essential to the main idea behind Dickey’s play. Kaufman and his colleagues went to Laramie, Wyoming, to create “a chronicle of the life of the town of Laramie after the murder,” a brutal, homophobic hate crime. To do so, they acted as journalists, interviewing townspeople researching the events.

Dickey’s subject is another brutal crime, the 2006 hostage taking of 10 Amish girls inside a schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. All were shot; five died. The gunman, a local non-Amish man, killed himself.  But unlike the Tectonic’s journalistic approach, Dickey sought to create a “fictional exploration of a true event.” She absorbed the news accounts, conducted research about the Amish religion and community, and eventually visited the site of the shooting. But she interviewed no one directly involved, and avoided reading about the gunman and his wife.

As such, The Amish Project seems to approach the events as a kind of anti-journalism that avoids the most compelling element of a news event’s textbook ingredients: Why? Which is what makes it such a brave and provocative play.

What it requires of actor Deborah Staples and director Leda Hoffmann is a kind of radical empathy—the essence of great theater—accomplished through a deep imagination that focuses on the universal rather than the minutia of events or personalities. Make no mistake—Staples generously embodies the seven characters of The Amish Project with great concentration and detail: The tender innocence of six-year-old Velda was so engaging on opening night, that audience members jumped in to answer out loud her rhetorical questions. And the unmoored recollections and reflections of the shooter’s widow, Carol Stuckey, take the audience on a difficult but ultimately sacramental journey—into what one character calls “la tristeza del mundo.”

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It’s exactly that “sadness of the world,” I think, that Dickey sees as one of the central assumptions of Amish life. But she also sees the simple beauty of their response (a beauty manifest in Courtney O’Neill’s expansive set design and Jason Fassl’s sensitive lighting). The Amish (and Dickey) don’t respond to this sadness with Beckett-like gloom and gallows humor, but instead offer the balm of simplicity and kindness, and the radical compassion that lead the community to instantly forgive Eddie Stuckey for his crime.

That compassion is illustrated in the interweaving stories that form the narrative of The Amish Project. Even Carol, haunted by the devastation, is touched by simple kindness of the community, and is inspired—in turn—to seek out forgiveness in her own way. But the power of the play goes far beyond the story and Hoffman and Staples’ skill at creating rich characters. Dickey’s play embodies the very essence of empathy—seven people walking a mile in the same actor’s shoes. And as it reaches its gentle, transcendent ending, Staples moves between the characters more rapidly, switching every sentence from one persona to the next, then every phrase and even every word. Finally, the harrowing news headline that opens the play—“Man Enters Amish Schoolhouse and Opens Fire!”—does not arrive via an anonymous voice, or by a chorus of commentators that ask “why? It is simply a part of everyone’s shared experience. The Amish, it seems, knew all along that this is where healing begins.

“The Amish Project” runs through March 22.