Monday, June 15, 2009

The Amish Project


By Jessica Dickey. Directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde. Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. (CLOSED)

Playwright/performer Jessica Dickey's solo drama, inspired by a horrific 2006 schoolroom shooting in a Pennsylvania Amish community, gets a cluster of warm, admiring reviews, though a number of dissenters find the piece unconvincingly idealized or off-point, and even some admirers question her choice to fictionalize an actual event and real people. None, however, quibble with Dickey's performance or the production under director Sarah Cameron Sunde.

The New York Times A
(Neil Genzlinger) Jessica Dickey is giving such an extraordinary performance in The Amish Project at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater that she makes it easy to overlook something else: the play is also a remarkable piece of writing. Ms. Dickey the actress has herself to thank for the compelling material; she is also the playwright. The success of the piece is all the more impressive because any description of it sends up a “cheesy exploitation” red flag...But any trepidation is dispelled almost as soon as the lights come up on Ms. Dickey, wearing traditional Amish dress nicely complemented by Lauren Helpern’s sparse set. Ms. Dickey, under Sarah Cameron Sunde’s direction, is completely convincing as she switches among the play’s seven characters.

Backstage A
(Lisa Jo Sagolla) Insightfully written and performed by Jessica Dickey, and crisply directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde, the fictionalized play grippingly examines the tragedy from the divergent perspectives of six dissimilar characters...A dexterous actor, Dickey persuasively portrays the multiple characters with no help from props or accessories. She is costumed throughout as a traditional Old Order Amish girl—in a plain blue dress, white apron and bonnet, black stockings and shoes—and uses only savvy changes in body movement, facial tension, and speech to bring forth different personalities. She sometimes switches rapidly from one to another yet does so with such clarity and truthfulness that the 70-minute play feels much like a tightly edited documentary film. It brings you face to face with pertinent perplexities in a way that's as real as it is transporting.

Just Shows To Go You A
(Patrick Lee) Extraordinary and deeply affecting...While always dressed as an Amish schoolgirl, a choice that not only unifies the production but also emphasizes some of the play’s themes, Dickey plays a variety of characters - the shooter, his wife, neighbors, etc. - who are directly or indirectly affected by the crime. Her portrayals are detailed and distinct - Dickey can shift with lightning speed from one of the fresh-faced innocent youngsters to an outraged neighbor and register each so vividly that we recognize them again without a word. As a playwright, she avoids easy sensationalism - there is some needed expository information, but her focus is not simply on exactly what happened nor even on why but on the spiritual challenge presented in the crime’s aftermath. The Amish Project gently asks enormous questions about our cultural capacity for forgiveness and grace; it’s generous, thoughtful and nourishing for the soul.

Time Out NY B+
(Helen Shaw) Dickey wants to control the story, but she also wants to launch it from a ready-made emotional springboard. Of course, good fiction sprouts from killing fields all the time—think of dramas set in concentration camps. But this ground is muddier; some of Dickey’s “characters” are living people to whom she has never spoken, and with whom she is taking serious liberties. If Dickey’s process makes me queasy, her craft made me weep. The virtuosic writer-performer acts her bonnet off—sporting modest Amish garb, Dickey plays a delightful, doomed little girl, the shooter’s bewildered widow and, inevitably, the killer himself. Between segments, director Sarah Cameron Sunde sends her to pose behind the spare set’s windows, where she looks—scowling in Nicole Pearce’s honeyed lights—like a Vermeer portrait gone insane. The show artfully asks serious questions about our limited capacity for charity, an exercise that spares us from the piece’s unremitting sadness.

Theatermania B+
(David Finkle) A generally solid solo piece...The show doesn't entirely surmount its major drawback--which is that it's fictionalizing the thoughts of its still-alive subjects. One of Dickey's goals is to attempt to get to the motive behind the crime, while scrupulously avoiding saying anything cut-and-dried about Roberts' criminal behavior...The people Dickey creates to stand in for the actual participants--although quickly sketched--are never less than three-dimensional. Young Velda, who continually draws stick figures in the air to denote family and friends, is especially winning, no more than when she asks to be shot second after older sister Anna asks to be shot first. North's authority and compassion are valuable to the narrative. B
(Martin Denton) Thought-provoking, compelling theatre...That Dickey's work is fiction rather than fact-based doesn't make it feel less "true"...My ambivalence...about The Amish Project, mirrors that of its creator, who tells us that she wanted to respect the privacy of all the victims of the Nickel Mines shooting—the families of the little girls who were killed and the widow of the gunman—but at the same time is clearly willing to use their tragedy as source material for her art...The line between the actual and the virtual is very blurry here, and for me that's quite problematic. That said, The Amish Project is extremely well-executed. The writing is intense and concise, and the seven characters that Dickey plays—effortlessly switching back and forth among them—are vivid and fully fleshed out. Sunde's direction is beautifully detailed.

Variety C+
(Sam Thielman) 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...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...To her credit, anything insulting in this show is undoubtedly unintentional.

CurtainUp C
(Paulanne Simmons) Under Sarah Cameron Sunde's direction, Dickey's performance is memorable for the way in which she delineates all these characters: the innocent young girls, the confused, but kindhearted America, the self-righteous Local, the self-pitying (and pitiful) Carol. But not one of these people gives any insight into the central question of the event and the play. Why did Stuckey commit the horrific act and how the Amish community was able to not only forgive the killer but also reach out to his family with comfort and care, remains a question mark. Consequently, watching The Amish Project is like observing a hound dog sniffing round and round in circles, digging up the ground and finally achieving nothing more than excavating an empty hole...Dickey claims that her lack of research into the actual killings gave her "creative license to write an unflinching play." The fact is that what she's really written is a play that skirts the issues in favor of self-indulgent flights of fancy.

NYT A 13; BS A 13; JSTGY A 13; TONY B+ 11; TM B+ 11; NYtheatre B 10; Variety C+ 8; CU C 7; TOTAL: 86/8=10.75 (B+)

1 comment:

James Sims said...

I've written an article about Jessica Dickey's creative process in creating "The Amish Project." You can check it out here: