‘The Amish Project’
Through May 11
Factory 449: a theatre collective
Anacostia Arts Center
1231 Good Hope Road, S.E.
The Amish possess a ridiculous capacity for forgiveness. In a world rife with revenge and hate, their willingness to forgive comes off like an exoticism, almost impossible to grasp. In playwright Angela Dickey’s “The Amish Project,” the concept is thoughtfully explored against a backdrop of mass murder.
This compelling work is inspired by a real event — the shooting of five Amish girls in the Nickel Mines schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pa., in 2006. But in approaching the headline story, Dickey has fictionalized characters and fiddled with the facts. She’s upped the victim toll from five to 10. The result is a wondrous, often intense piece that deals with the crime and its ramifications, particularly how the outside world comes crashing into an insular Amish community whose wronged members forgive the man who killed their children and offer solace to his defensive widow.
Currently, Factory 449: a theatre collective is presenting “The Amish Project” in a compact, black box space at the vibrant Anacostia Arts Center. It’s a strikingly moving production and much of this has to do with the one-woman show’s sole cast member, Nanna Ingvarsson, who, under Holly Twyford’s adroit direction, gives a remarkable multi-character performance in which she plays seven parts.
Dressed in Amish girl garb (cotton blue dress, pinafore, bonnet, black tights and clunky shoe), Ingvarsson brings believability to each portrayal whether it’s a schoolgirl with crinkly eyes and a toothy grin or the gunman’s widow whose mouth is turned downward with anger and grief. Throughout 90 compelling minutes, Ingvarsson — without a costume change — seamlessly morphs into each of the finely drawn and very different characters. She even convincingly plays the killer, a milkman whose picturesque route included the country schoolhouse.
Like “The Laramie Project,” this work offers multiple perspectives. There’s Velda, the precocious, 6-year-old victim, who gives insight into the gentle ways of her Amish family and the simplicity of innocence. The character of middle-aged religion professor Bill North seems made to give specifics about the religious sect and its reluctance to adopt many conveniences of modern technology, but he’s more than that; North is an outsider with a special, firsthand connection to the Amish world and its forgiveness. There’s the embittered non-Amish farmer’s wife who can’t forgive; and then there’s the young but wise Hispanic grocery clerk for whom forgiveness comes naturally.
The gunman’s wife Carol is obsessed with skin products, hoping to erase the outward signs of grief and sadness with the latest anti-wrinkle cream. And while she is a bit wary of the Amish, those men with their beards, black hats and the horse and buggies, she is struck by the kindness they show her. At night she drives to the farmhouse belonging to the Amish family who lost two little girls in the shooting. From the road, Carol can see through the kitchen window. The father sits at the table, bent over, mourning his dead children.
Dickey’s writing is imbued with haunting imagery. Even the way the killer describes the splendor of “a flock” of Amish girls in the field by the schoolhouse, paints a striking image. Without minimizing the depravity of the crime, the playwright gets deep into the heads of all her characters, effectively threading a theme of humanity throughout her beautifully written work.
Out director Twyford has collaborated with a top-notch design team. Out Factory 449 member Greg Stevens’ set is spare and serviceable: horizontal slats, a chalk board that assists in storytelling, a suspended window and a corner of split rail fence. Newspapers are visible through the separated slats, suggesting the onslaught of intrusive outsiders. Lighting designer Joseph E. Walls alternately bathes Stevens’ set in dappled sunshine and moonlight, and harsher lighting for the big supermarket, houses with TVs and other manifestations of the non-Amish world.