Playwright Jessica Dickey originally wrote The Amish Project, her fictional exploration of the 2006 Pennsylvania Amish schoolhouse shooting, for a single female actor. A subsequent ensemble script expanded it to a mixed gender cast of seven. In the current production from Vancouver’s Dark Glass Theatre director Angela Konrad presents the drama as a hybrid, with four female actors.
After viewing this production, originally produced by Alberta’s Rosebud Theatre, one can’t help but imagine a superior production had the Dark Glass Theatre team presented it as originally written, with Kelsey Krogman as its sole actor.
Not that Krogram, who plays the murderer’s wife here, could necessarily save Dickey’s fragmented story (sermon? poem?), but from what Krogram displayed on stage on opening night, she would have at least made it an interesting exercise.
Given its title it isn’t difficult to make comparisons to the superior The Laramie Project, Moisés Kaufman’s drama about another horrendous tragedy. But The Amish Project is not verbatim theatre. And it is a shame Dickey didn’t borrow from the genre, because she only really scratches at the surface of this real-life tragic story, even telling us at one point what the show is not about.
There is also a huge problem with few real stakes. Even if going in you aren’t familiar with this real-life event and its tragic outcome, it is repeated to overly dramatic effect: “Man enters Amish schoolhouse and opens fire”.
And the real story, one of forgiveness, is lost inside a whirling dervish (sometimes quite literally) of two of the victims who make an appearance. No doubt intended to illicit an empathy for the young lives lost, here the effect becomes muddled as Dickey jumps from character to character. The result is a dilution of what should be an emotional (and arguably uplifting) story of forgiveness.
The casting notes for the script states “the ensemble of The Amish Project should feel as “one” – connected to one another, constantly longing for and frightened of and curious about one another.”
While director Konrad tries to convey this connectivity, it is inconsistent. In several scenes, living characters are aware of the “ghosts” of the dead children, but in others they are simply ignored. An attempt to find a connecting thread, as to when they were acknowledged and when they were not, became an exercise in frustration.
While Krogram is the definite star of this production, there is also some nice work from Heidi Macdonald as the murderer. Unlike the other character she plays, Amish scholar Bill North who pops in every so often to provide some context about the Amish people, Macdonald captures an almost surreal portrait of the killer. To the playwright’s credit, she presents this central character without judgement, underlining the Amish community’s refusal to condemn, and Macdonald embraces the intent.
Esther Koepnick and Anna Dalgleish struggle with their characterizations, especially as the two young Amish girls. As the 16-year old grocery clerk, America, Dalgleish fares somewhat better, but her accent is so off it will have you wondering if you heard correctly that she was the daughter of a Puerto Rican immigrant.
Production designer Robyn Ayles washes the stage in a yellowish tinge which makes the actors look jaundice much of the time. Her set, consisting of sheets hung out to dry, hints to a simpler Amish lifestyle and does provide an opportunity for shadows.
With Krogram the real reason to see the Dark Glass Theatre’s The Amish Project, it is disappointing her obvious skills weren’t allowed to be featured in Dickey’s original one-woman version of the play.
As presented in this ensemble version though, The Amish Project fails to find the necessary emotional resonance.
The Amish Project by Jessica Dickey. Directed by Angela Konrad. A Dark Glass Theatre production. On stage at Studio 1398 (1398 Cartwright St, Granville Island) until February 23. Visit darkglasstheatre.com for tickets and information.