When actor Jessica Dickey heard there had been a mass shooting in an Amish community not far from where she had grown up in Waynesboro, Pa., part of her soul went dim.
Five youngsters were massacred at the one-room West Nickel Mines School by a gunman who then committed suicide. The 2006 incident showed that a world she’d always seen as removed from modernity was not so distant after all.
Dickey, 37, until then only a performer, decided to take a stab at crafting a play around the subject. The result is “The Amish Project,” her much-heralded solo show that begins previews Tuesday in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio. “Amish” raises important questions around trauma, responsibility and forgiveness.
Dickey knew right off the bat that she did not want to craft a docudrama. For one thing, that would’ve been too painful. Instead, she opted for a fictional meditation on the people and the events.
“Just hearing about the shooting was gut-wrenching enough,” she said. “It was a really gruesome crime and I didn’t want to knock on doors and rub raw the living memories of people carrying that tragedy.”
She also wanted to muse on something that was as striking to her as it is rare. The families of the victims immediately forgave the killer, a milk truck driver, even reaching out to his family as fellow victims.
“There was a mysterious spiritual transaction between the Amish and the gunman via his surviving family that was startling,” Dickey said. “The pendulum swung, from about the worst thing we can be to each other, to about the best. That really caught me.”
Dickey plays seven roles, including a pair of Amish girls, the gunman, his widow and residents of Nickel Mines.
The project’s trajectory is almost a fairy tale for any budding playwright. After Dickey completed the play, it premiered in the New York Fringe Festival. Booked for a 2009 run at New York’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, it got the attention of a New York Times critic who called her performance “extraordinary” and the play “remarkable.” She has performed “Amish” all over the country. She also has had others perform it, both as a solo piece and with acting ensembles.
Experiment in engagement
“Amish” is part of a Guthrie series of solo shows called Singular Voices/Plural Perspectives that began last fall with Aaron Davidman’s “Wrestling Jerusalem,” about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It continues March 18-19 with “Taylor Mac: The 20th Century Abridged” and Colman Domingo’s “A Boy and His Soul” (Aug. 9-28).
Each performance will be followed by a conversation with the audience.
“The idea is to test some notions about how best to engage our community going forward,” said Guthrie artistic director Joe Haj. “We were thrilled by the community response to our nightly conversations after each performance of ‘Wrestling Jerusalem’ and we were shown that there is great appetite in the Twin Cities for the Guthrie to create room for such dialogue.”
While Dickey has written other works since, her sole solo show is the one that keeps pulling her back onstage. Sadly, continuing tragedies have made its themes evergreen. Also, fictionalizing the story allowed her the freedom to inject moments of light and levity and to meditate on a grim situation.
“I feel strongly that one has the right to tell any story, but that’s not how I was raised,” she said.
It caused her to examine her own upbringing and her reactions to the subject. Most people hold on to a sense of punitive justice — “an eye-for-an-eye” and all that — but the Amish sought quickly to end the cycle of violence.
After the shooting occurred, the Amish quickly razed the school and planted grass where the killings had taken place. Dickey visited the site.
“Animals graze there now,” she said. “When you’re there, you don’t necessarily feel the residue of what happened. As an outsider, I see the wishing in that. Somehow, whatever cycle of violence and suffering led to this massive outburst of grief and suffering will end. There is something about the grieved parties being willing to absorb the pain and not let it ripple onward and pass to the next victim that’s really heroic, but also challenging to reckon with.”