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BWW Reviews: THE AMISH PROJECT Haunting, Yet Hopeful

The Amish Project

Written by Jessica Dickey, Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue; Scenic Designer, Alexander Grover; Lighting Designer, Kayleigha Zawacki; Sound Designer, Andrew Duncan Will; Stage Manager, Rachel Policare

Featuring: Danielle Kellermann

Performances through March 22, as part of the Next Rep Black Box Festival at New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA; Box Office 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org

On October 2, 2006, a lone gunman entered a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, and took ten girls hostage before shooting them, killing five, and turning the gun on himself. As disturbing as yet another tragic event in a school may be, the impact was heightened by the fact that this tragedy occurred in an Amish community, where faith and a peaceful existence are the order of the day. Playwright and actor Jessica Dickey converted her heartbreak and fascination with the crime into a fictionalized, one-woman play which explores the unusual path of forgiveness and compassion that the community followed in its aftermath.

The Amish Project was first produced at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2008 and received its Off-Broadway premiere in 2009 at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater with Dickey performing all of the roles in the play on both occasions. New Repertory Theatre is presenting the play as part of its second annual Next Rep Black Box Festival at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. The first of three one-woman shows being spotlighted (appropriate for Women's History Month), The Amish Project is directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue and features Danielle Kellermann in a riveting and haunting portrayal of seven distinctive characters.

Even though we are told that this is a work of fiction with all of the characters being fabricated, Vaan Hogue and Kellermann craft a theatrical production with such authenticity that it feels like a docudrama. While dressed by Emily Astorian in the traditional garb of an Amish girl - a blue cotton dress that falls below the knee, a white apron, black stockings and flat shoes, and a white bonnet - Kellermann convincingly distinguishes the adult characters, both male and female, by changing her posture, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Like an impressionist, she briefly turns her back to the audience and fluidly takes on another persona by the time she comes full circle. She is animated and bright-eyed as Velda, a six-year old victim of the shooting; she plays a professor who serves as spokesperson for the families with a mellow voice and straight spine; as the gunman, she sits forward in a chair with her elbows resting atop her splayed legs; and she captures the emotional turmoil of the shooter's widow, bouncing from grief to shame to anger to feeling like she's losing her mind to calm acceptance. It's a masterful performance.

If there is one thread that runs through the entire story, it is the resilience of faith and the triumph of goodness in the face of the darkest evil. At the time of the Nickel Mines shooting, there was a lot of attention on the response of the Amish community being focused on forgiveness and reconciliation, even to the point of offering comfort to the shooter's widow and other family members. This was a difficult concept for many people to understand, although it is in keeping with the values of Amish culture and constituted a step toward a more hopeful future. Dickey chooses to move the story in a similar direction in the way that the Amish treat the widow, as well as the way that she imagines the unbending faith of the littlest girl.

The black box theater is an ideal space for this intimate play and placing the sparse set in the far corner of the room underlines the plight of the victims who were "cornered" in their classroom. Scenic designer Alexander Grover uses wooden flooring and one partial wall of wooden panels to suggest the simplicity of the Amish lifestyle. Kayleigha Zawacki frequently alters the lighting as Kellermann changes character and location, and Andrew Duncan Will provides the sound of children's voices at the start of the play, at once cheerful and unsettling because we know what is about to happen. It is the singular achievement of the playwright that we go in with that crucial knowledge, yet discover that she has other lessons to impart. However, it is because of Vaan Hogue and Kellermann that we are compelled to take them home with us and, as Velda says, "Keep looking."

Photo credit: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures (Danielle Kellermann)


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From This Author Nancy Grossman