Like a classic Amish quilt, Jessica Dickey’s 2008 play The Amish Project unfolds at City Theatre to become a vivid, multi-patterned amazement. And, in her one-person performance of it, she keeps it full of astonishing patterns, moving sideways and up and down in time. She brings forth a work of surprising beauty, emerging from lives full of pain in what is neither a narrative documentary nor a pointed lecture rushing emphatically to an absolute conclusion. Don’t be miss-led; the title seems too simple for what she has created. Perhaps she intends to reflect Amish traditions. Restraint. Modesty. Yet this can warm you and hold you close against the revealed darkness of fragmented lives.
Dickey comes from south central Pennsylvania, not so very far from Pittsburgh and not so very far from Lancaster, PA and its many Amish communities. But her work reaches out in all directions bringing home something to grab us where we live even as we disperse in our many separate ways.
Alone on a deliberately frugally-set stage, she portrays seven people in a tale which weaves together real details with elements of fictional speculation in a pattern of intersecting lives…and deaths…into something bigger than any one component. At the center lie these facts: In 2006, not far from Lancaster, a gunman shot ten Amish schoolgirls, killing five and himself. The Amish community responded with forgiveness and reconciliation. Such a story, as you can see, contains an array of feelings, shock at the horror, sorrow, puzzlement, soul-searching and soul-embracing.
Dickey explores all of that, bringing forth her own perspective in depicting two young girls who were victims, the murderer, his wife, an accidentally involved teen-age supermarket clerk from a nearby town and a college professor who has long known the Amish and tries to explain to outsiders how and why they live the way they do. Somewhere in there, too, Dickey brings out details about an historical precedent of outsiders cruelly treating this deliberately self-contained sect.
Yes, it is a lot to grasp. But, amid your tears and smiles, you want to embrace those wonderfully portrayed, dear departed schoolgirls. And you want to try to understand why the killer did what he did, wondering if you would have equal grace and compassion to forgive him. Dickey deliberately does not answer all the questions but leaves it all for you to absorb and to come away with it permeating your memory. Director Sarah Cameron Sunde continually helps to make it live, although I wish that she or Dickey could have found a better way to physically personify the professor, even if the movements imitate an actual person.
Sitting there before the lights go out, reading Dickey’s eloquent program notes, you may wonder if you can endure what lies ahead, only to find, when the lights go up again, that something bright shines in the night, even as the latest news gives us new reasons to mourn.
The Amish Project continues through May 8th at City Theatre on Bingham Street on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Tickets and info: at 412/431-CITY (2489) or CityTheatreCompany.org.