"The Amish Project," actor-writer Jessica Dickey's must-see solo show that opened Friday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, is something of a theatrical contradiction. Dickey, as formidable a playwright as she is a performer, tackles metaphysical subjects with power and empathy in "Amish," whose characters cope with the aftermath of a mass shooting in an insular religious community.
The play is based on a tragedy that happened in Nickel Mines, Pa., in 2006 when Charles Carl Roberts IV, a milk deliveryman, went into a one-room schoolhouse and took 10 schoolgirls, ages 6 to 13, hostage. He dismissed the teacher and boys from the room, lined up the female students and shot most of them, killing five.
Dickey investigates the story through seven fictional characters, the youngest and most endearing being 6-year-old Velda. Velda likes to draw stick figures, including of the religious personages she's learning about at school. When we see what happens through her eyes, there's nothing but heartbreak.
The other characters are Anna, 14; America, a 16-year-old Puerto Rican girl who is part of the large Latino population in the area; Bill North, a professor of Amish culture who serves as a kind of explainer; a local resident named Sherry; the gunman and his widow, Carol.
Dickey sketches her characters distinctly through shifting cadences and particularized language, including bodily gestures that extend the vocal tics. The actor, who understands the virtue of subtlety in this kind of production, also uses facial expressions that range from open and innocent to tight and broken to show the inner lives of her characters. And she makes them vivid to us through zones of movement on the stage, showing the professor at a lectern, or the fearful and somewhat isolated widow moving behind windows.
In all of the action, Dickey wears the traditional garb of an Amish woman, including a white bonnet.
Dickey's writing and acting combine to take us into the psyches of her characters. In her 70-minute show, she makes palpable onstage the interior collapse that happens when we experience heartbreak and loss. But "Amish" is not only concerned with the broken pieces. It is a work that shows, or perhaps even seeks, spiritual answers to material loss.
After the real incident, in which the gunman took his own life, his family was forgiven by the community. This is dramatized in "Amish" through families bringing food to the widow of the shooter as the grieving community enfolds the gunman's family as equal sufferers of loss.
This is an act of grace that distinguishes that shooting, and the show. It's an act that seeks to arrest suffering and the thoughts that linger for revenge. It is also an act of healing, of a community pointing a way out of cycles of hurt and violence. And it is well-told in Dickey's powerful play.