Jessica Dickey in The Amish Project
(© Geoff Green)
Jessica Dickey in The Amish Project
(© Geoff Green)
On October 2, 2006, a Pennsylvania man named Charles Carl Roberts IV -- driven by an uncontrollable desire to ravish young girls -- entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse under false pretenses, used plastic ties to constrain 10 of the female students, and, aware that police cars had surrounded the building, shot to death five of the hostages, severely wounded the others, and fatally turned his firearm on himself. Intrigued by this tragedy, Jessica Dickey has created The Amish Project, a generally solid solo piece about the event, now at the Rattlestick Theater.

For 70 minutes, Dickey -- under the direction of Sarah Cameron Sunde -- imagines how those involved might have acted as the tragedy unfolded and in its agitated aftermath, before employing her handiwork as a showcase for herself. During this time, Dickey covers the slaughter of these innocents from several perspectives, including doomed sisters Anna and Velda, gunman Edward Stuckey, his widow Carol, and an expert on the sect, Bill North, who's introduced holding a press conference to explain the complex Amish response. Still, the show doesn't entirely surmount its major drawback -- which is that it's fictionalizing the thoughts of its still-alive subjects.

One of Dickey's goals is to attempt to get to the motive behind the crime, while scrupulously avoiding saying anything cut-and-dried about Roberts' criminal behavior. At one point, she has the hard-edged, inconsolable Carol say of Roberts: "He couldn't keep his darkness down anymore, and it ate him up -- it ate him, and it ate those poor little girls, and now it's eating me." But the work's larger purpose -- and her play's strongest feature -- is to underline the forgiveness that is at the foundation of Amish belief. She reports it in numerous passages, not the least when Carol describes a conciliatory visit she received from the dead girls' families. Dickey also has North remark with a certain amount of professional awe, "I've been teaching about them, studying them for 25 years -- it doesn't matter what your faith is or if you even have one -- something about them makes you wonder: What am I? Could I be more?"

The people Dickey creates to stand in for the actual participants -- although quickly sketched -- are never less than three-dimensional. Young Velda, who continually draws stick figures in the air to denote family and friends, is especially winning, no more than when she asks to be shot second after older sister Anna asks to be shot first. North's authority and compassion are valuable to the narrative. Most compelling is Carol, who has difficulty knowing how best to cope with her ordeal and digresses to chat about her interest in skin emollients as helpful in getting her by.