BWW Review: Actors Bridge and Belmont Theatre Team Up for Provocative and Moving AMISH PROJECT
Actors Bridge Ensemble - Nashville's most forward-thinking and cutting-edge professional theater company - teams up once again with Belmont University Department of Theatre and Dance to celebrate their tenth anniversary as artistic collaborators with Jessica Dickey's The Amish Project, a moving and provocative presentation that allows the two companies' strengths to be fully on display, giving audiences much to consider in the post-show haze of introspection and remembrance.
Easily, The Amish Project is one of the most moving pieces of contemporary theater we've encountered over the past several years - years that have seen remarkable growth both in artistic impact and, perhaps more importantly, the training of fledgling actors who have consistently shown promise and emerge from academia to claim their rightful places on stages all over the world.
Dramas like The Amish Project seem perfect for academic theater, challenging the cast to new heights while not demanding of them to play classic theater roles that might be beyond their grasp and giving stage crews the opportunity to show what they're made of (of particular note in this production, Robert Helvey adds startling scenic design and costume design - McKenzie Wilkes shares credit for the ideal costumes that clothe the actors - credits to his resume).
Directed with a deft and steady hand by Jaclynn Jutting that ensures the story unfolds in ways both surprising and somewhat expected, The Amish Project is playwright Dickey's response to the senseless and horrific murders of ten little girls in an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania a decade ago. Killed by a local milkman bent on stealing the innocence of the girls by molesting them, they are brought back to life to help tell the story that examines the impact of the event on all those affected by it. Today, the story continues to reverberate through the Pennsylvania Dutch region and the enormity of the tale resonates with every person who has become inured to the ever-increasing media reports of mass shootings and the loss of so much life for reasons that are seemingly inexplicable no matter one's perspective.
Originally written by Dickey to be performed by a lone actress who enacts each of the roles included among the people whose lives are changed by the terror of sudden loss, The Amish Project has been adapted for performance by an ensemble of actors. Under Jutting's direction, the nine-person cast effectively relate the stories of each character with honesty and authenticity that might be rendered phony and false in less capable hands.
Dickey's unflinching examination of the events that led up to and followed in the wake of the 2006 Amish School murders in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, provide a fresh perspective that resonates deeply with the audience who have seen far too many maudlin yet sensationalized TV movie-of-the-week treatments of similar stories of terror brought too close to home. Using the characters of two of the dead girls - sisters Velda and Anna - who set the scene with disarming ease, Dickey uses her play as a conduit to allow each of the characters to enter the collective heart of the audience members.
If you are not moved by the action that takes place in front of you, in the fluid way in which the story is told and the characters are revealed, then you have a much harder heart than a wizened theater critic who fought to stifle sobs and hold back the tears that came in response to the intimate moments captured in Dickey's well-chosen words and phrases.
Perhaps most startling, though, is her treatment of the man who perpetrated the horrific crime - here he is named Eddie, a simple man whose calm demeanor masked his deeper, darker intentions - and how his actions changed the lives of his own family in addition to the kind and God-fearing Amish families whose daughters were ripped out of their loving arms in so violent a fashion.
Playing Eddie, Drew Freeman gives a chilling performance, one that skirts tabloid exploitation while somehow resolutely remaining so real that it is almost gasp-worthy in intensity. Freeman is at one minute affable and almost charming in his small town way while the next he transforms into a lustful and lewd monster. And while Eddie is not the central character in the play - despite the opening lines of "a lone gunman enters an Amish schoolhouse and opens fire" that are repeated for added impact throughout the play's 70 minutes - Freeman's solid performance ensures that audiences will leave the theater conflicted in their response to the character he so effectively portrays.
Cast as Carol, the wife of the "sicko" (as he's branded by a woman at the supermarket who encounters Carol and upbraids her for not being the kind of wife who could have prevented the tragedy) Amanda Bell gives a beautifully nuanced and thoroughly believable performance: Emotional and controlled at once, Bell shows off her already estimable talents with line readings that cut through the artifice of any fictionalized and scripted iteration of a real event to reveal the heart of the matter in ways that are certain to challenge and confound.
Actress Allie Huff (who has delighted audiences in a variety of Belmont theatre productions and on the stages of multiple Nashville theater companies) once more shows off her amazing range and versatility. Playing Velda, one of Eddie's young victims, Huff does so with all the wide-eyed innocence she can muster, showing an unerring sense of who her character really is while managing to capture the joy and heartbreak that makes her all-too-brief life especially noteworthy.
As Velda's beloved (and only slightly older) sister Anna, Astrid Rotenberry's beautiful smile and expressive performance ideally captures the restrained joy and amazing maturity of the girl, helping to lead the audience through the chain of events that figure at the center of the play's story. Josh Kiev, in a role that relies more upon his physical presence and the unspoken importance of his thoughts and feelings, gives a remarkably understated performance that ensures that the pain of the girls' father Aaron is felt demonstrably and acutely.
Phaedra McDowell, as a vivacious and intelligent grocery store clerk name America, is particularly appealing and Joe Mobley plays the terrified and prayerful brother of Velda and Anna with ease.
CJ Tucker transforms herself into a small-minded townswoman who is taken aback by new reports of the incident - she is the woman who confronts Carol at the Giant Foods supermarket - and succeeds once again in losing herself within the character she plays, to breathtaking success. And James Al-Shamma (who made his Belmont stage debut in that first collaborative production between Actors Bridge and the university theater department some ten years previous) completes Jutting's persona as a local university professor who leads a town hall meeting in order to help shed light on the local Amish community and how they deal with grief.
Helvey's evocative set design (he makes good use of rough-hewn lumber to suggest the interior of an Amish barn that transforms into a collection of settings) and Richard K. Davis' stunning lighting design provide a perfect backdrop for the play's action, with the audience becoming more actively involved in what transpires in the riveting one hour-plus of the play's running time.
The Amish Project. By Jessica Dickey. Directed by Jacklynn Jutting. Presented by Actors Bridge Ensemble and Belmont University Department of Theatre and Dance. At the Belmont Black Box Theatre, Nashville. Through April 22. Running time: 70 minutes (with no intermission).
About the show: Actors Bridge Ensemble's 21st season continues with the Nashville premiere of THE AMISH PROJECT (ensemble version) by Jessica Dickey, directed by Jaclynn Jutting. This play marks the 10th annual Actors Bridge/Belmont University Department of Theatre and Dance collaboration where university theater students are paired with local theater professionals on all aspects of production. Performance dates are April 7-9 and 20-22 in the Belmont Black Box Theater (there are no performances over Easter weekend per Belmont University requirements).
Conceived in the wake of the 2006 school shootings in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, Jessica Dickey's fictional exploration of a real-life tragedy questions the limits of compassion in the face of radical forgiveness. First produced as a solo work performed by the playwright in the New York International Fringe Festival, this new ensemble version brings to life a community at the crossroads of grief and mercy.
Directed by Belmont University Department of Theatre and Dance Assistant Professor and Director of the BFA Directing program Jaclynn Jutting, THE AMISH PROJECT cast includes long-time Actors Bridge and Belmont acting instructor CJ Tucker, Belmont professor Dr. James Al-Shamma as well as Belmont BFA performance majors Amanda Bell, Drew Freeman, Allie Huff, Josh Kiev, Phaedra McDowell, Astrid Rotenberry and Joe Mobley.
"THE AMISH PROJECT marks our 10th annual collaborative production with the Belmont Department of Theatre and Dance and our 10th year as a professional theater company in residence there. It's a relationship we cherish," says ABE Producing Artistic Director Vali Forrister. "We are excited about our first opportunity to work with Jackie Jutting as a director. As the head of the directing program at Belmont, she brings fresh perspectives to our community."
Describing her connection to the play, Director Jutting explains: "As an artist, I look for projects and stories that reflect and interrogate the human condition. I remember where I was on October 2, 2006 when a man entered an Amish schoolhouse and opened fire. The world lost five little girls that day and a family lost a father and husband. In the ten years since, too many more people have died in shooting in our country. You don't have to look far to see that this story addresses violence in our community-something we deal with far too often.
What is especially extraordinary to me is the response of the Amish community in the wake of this violence. What I find extraordinary about this play is that it reminds us that while we as human have the ability to inflict violence on each other-we are also capable of forgiveness. The ability to forgive and offer compassion is incredibly powerful. It may be the only rebuttal to violence that we have become far too intimate with too often."
Veteran ABE company member CJ Tucker has worked on many of the ABE/Belmont collaborations over the last decade as both an actor and director. Of this process, she says,"I have had the pleasure of working with Belmont students for nearly 10 years. It is always a joy to observe their work and progress. The bar is set high for these students. Their work ethic makes me a better performer. The Actors Bridge/Belmont collaboration always excites and inspires me."
"THE AMISH PROJECT is a compelling, deeply moving and challenging piece. It deserves and requires a delicate, respectful approach. The working atmosphere is reverential, creatively stimulating and safe. I so enjoy going to rehearsals and never think of myself as going to work with students. I think of myself as going to the theatre to work with accomplished and dedicated actors and artisans. I am grateful for the opportunity."
The production team for THE AMISH PROJECT is Robert Helvey (scenic design), Richard K. Davis, LC, MIEC and Henry Beach (lighting design), Robert Helvey and McKenzie Wilkes (costume design), Kevin O'Donnell, Kandler Oldham, Andrew Timms, and Rachel Kennedy (sound design), Storm Sloan (dramaturgy), with stage management by Alex Drinnen and assistant stage management by Megan Huggins. The play is produced by Paul Gatrell and Vali Forrister.
The ABE 21st season will continue with Act Like a GRRRL, June 22-24 at Belmont's Black Box Theater.
Production photos by Rick Malkin; poster photo by Kara McLelland