In “The Amish Project,” Sadieh Rifai inhabits 7 characters with an emotional dexterity that’s virtuosic.
On October 2, 2006, a non-Amish milk truck driver in Nickel Mines, Pa., entered a one-room schoolhouse for Amish children with a gun, demanding that all the boys and adults leave. He bound the girls with plastic ties. When the police arrived and asked him to surrender, he shot 10 girls—killing 5—and then shot himself.
This tragic event moved playwright Jessica Dickey to research Amish culture and write this fictional play, which was critically acclaimed in New York and has since been produced throughout the country. The 7 characters are not based on real people, nor any interviews. There are the two Amish schoolgirls who were victims of the shooting—one drawing with chalk and explaining her lessons with a child’s wholly unfettered exuberance; the gunman’s widow, who gets verbally attacked at the grocery store and sees visions of her dead husband in the yard; an articulate scholar of and spokesperson for the Amish; an angry resident of Nickel Mines; and a sassy, teenage Latina grocery clerk who often addresses the audience, “I know what you’re thinking.”
Rifai, under the direction of ATC Artistic Director PJ Paparelli, snaps between these entities at the play’s uneven intervals, traversing gender, race, religion and even dialect with razor-sharp precision, and giving every character equal force. While Rifai’s acting is mesmerizing, the lack of costume changes lends a starring role to Jesse Klug’s haunting lighting design and the original music and eerie sound design by Fabian Obispo. A side door emitting the stage’s only light leaves Rifai in shadow as she enters the gunmen’s dark psyche. Later, when she’s a child looking in on her grieving father, gentle lighting makes the field where she stands look like heaven.
And Dickey’s idiosyncratic writing takes you inside the obscure Amish world. As the clean-shaven gunmen looms over her, the Amish schoolgirl wonders about her own father’s chin, which she has never seen. When the Amish families that were victims come to visit the gunman’s widow and offer their forgiveness the very day of the shooting, the widow first reacts, “They’re shocking, they’re freaks.” But later, she calls the Amish man “a man-flower”: “He spoke so slowly and so quietly, I kind of liked that, like being read to sleep.” And the scholar sums it up: “There’s something about them that makes you wonder, ‘What am I? Could I be more?’”
“The Amish Project,” 70 minutes with no intermission, runs through Oct. 30 at American Theater Company. For tickets, call 773-409-4125 or visit atcweb.org.