Theater & Arts

After horror, can forgiveness come? New Ensemble tackles question in ‘The Amish Project’

Kristin Lyn Crase performs seven characters in “The Amish Project.”
Kristin Lyn Crase performs seven characters in “The Amish Project.” Special to The Bee

In 2006, a man took 10 girls hostage at an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Penn. He ended up shooting all of them, killing five, before committing suicide.

The response from the shaken Amish community was forgiveness.

Ten years later, with many more mass shootings now part of our history, The New Ensemble theater company presents a thoughtful and timely play exploring the issue. Jessica Dickey’s “The Amish Project” uses the factual details of the Nickel Mines shooting but with fictional characters. The play asks “why forgiveness, compassion and grace is increasingly important in our society – even during our very worst moments,” says director Heather Parish. “It is an antidote to the pervasive blame, shame, and finger-wagging we all experience in our daily lives.”

We caught up with Parish via email to chat about the show.

Forgiveness is not a trick where you snap your fingers, all of the bad feelings go away and you pretend like all is well. It is not a pardon and it is not a reconciliation. It is a process.

Director Heather Parish

Q: What is fact-based in the show?

A: The details of the shooting in “The Amish Project” are the factual details of the Nickel Mines shooting in 2006 – the place, time, method, the number of victims, the Nickel Mines community, and the media coverage in the play are all factual. The generalities of the Amish response and extension of forgiveness to the shooter is also factual.

What is fictional are the names and personal details of the characters in the story. Each of the fictional characters in the story represents a person or group in the Nickel Mines community, but elements of their biographies have been changed. The reason being that Jessica Dickey, the playwright, didn’t want to exploit these people’s experience for her own artistic work. So she wrote from a very empathetic place what she imagined their experience might have been like.

Q: Kristin Lyn Crase plays seven different characters, from the gunman to victims. How?

A: There are no costume changes and the stage is set with the bare minimum of props and furnishings. The characters are entirely exhibited through Kristin’s voice, body and mannerisms, which is what makes it a challenge for the actor and so entrancing for the audience.

Q: Since working on this play, do you react any differently to news of a mass shooting, such as the recent one in Oregon?

A: Absolutely. This play does something that no amount of political rhetoric, journalistic questioning or prayerful platitudes can do in response to violent events: it puts a very concrete, human face on the loss and pain of such acts.

When I heard the news of the Oregon shooting, the first thing that flashed through my mind were the victims portrayed in “The Amish Project” and I immediately imagined the panic and confusion of the Oregon victims’ last moments. Then I thought of their families and the long struggle they would have to come to terms with the horror, and then the shooter’s family and their pain, and even the unutterable void of the shooter himself – that I can never understand or imagine what made him capable of doing such a thing is so sharply drawn in this piece that that is now the first thing I think about when I hear of violent atrocities. But there is also a great sense of relief that as long as I can feel such things for others, and that people are capable of empathy for others, there’s still some hope.

Q: Would you be able to be as forgiving as the Amish families in the Nickel Mines shooting?

A: The most enduring aspect of the Nickel Mines shooting is the radical level of forgiveness the Amish extended to the shooter. I’m not sure I could go to the lengths the Amish went to for the man who slaughtered my family (about 40 of the Amish victims’ family members attended the shooter’s funeral, for example). I have a hard kernel of something in me that can turn wounds into grudges if I’m not careful.

However, in taking this play to heart, I’ve learned that forgiveness is not a trick where you snap your fingers, all of the bad feelings go away and you pretend like all is well. It is not a pardon and it is not a reconciliation. It is a process. The moment we say “I extend forgiveness” is the moment that we announce that we have no intention to hold a grudge, that we have no intention to harm, no intention to seek vengeance on those that wronged us. When we declare that we hold no ill will towards another, we can then begin to deal with the loss and the wound inside of us rather than worry about what someone else is doing. Letting go of that goes a long way towards getting on with the life we have yet to lead.

Q: What is the play’s production history?

A: “The Amish Project” was first presented at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2008 and went on to a production at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in NYC. From there the playwright performed it on tour nationwide. In the last few years, it has been produced by community and professional groups several times a year. Dickey has recently been awarded the Stavis Award from National Theater Conference for outstanding achievement by an emerging playwright. She’s a great new voice.

Q: Anything you'd like to add?

November is a month of thanksgiving and reflection, and “The Amish Project” is tailor made for anyone who wants a thoughtful, inspiring piece of storytelling. It’s a little over an hour long and intended for audiences over the age of 14 or so (there’s some mature language). We’re hoping that people take a chance on our little show and walk away with great big ideas in return.

The Amish Project

Theater preview

  • 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7; and Nov. 12-14 and 19-21
  • The Voice Shop, 1296 N. Wishon Ave.
  • www.newensemble.com, 559-376-8803
  • $10, $12.50 at door
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