Theater & Arts

In ‘Amish Project,’ The New Ensemble presents moving play about mass shooting

Kristin Lyn Crase plays seven characters in The New Ensemble’s “The Amish Project.”
Kristin Lyn Crase plays seven characters in The New Ensemble’s “The Amish Project.” Special to The Bee

All the characters depicted in the sad and reflective one-woman show “The Amish Project” are moving. But one stands out in particular in this gutsy little production from The New Ensemble: the wife of the man who walks into an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pa., and kills five girls.

It says something about our craving for consistency that a journalistic template quickly evolves for just about every news event in our fast-moving, media-saturated world. Unfortunately, mass shootings are no exception. After the initial hazy reports and updates, when the killer is finally identified and the narrative solidified, there are certain stories we expect: The profiles on the victims. The impact on anguished families. The grief of the community.

And a key ingredient: the story of the shooter, complete with comments from neighbors, friends and acquaintances, sometimes the family, all with these questions: Why and how did this particular individual take such a bad turn, and was it anyone’s “fault”?

The central theme of Jessica Dickey’s “The Amish Project,” which uses fictional characters to tell the story of the 2006 Nickel Mines schoolhouse shooting, is forgiveness. Amish families, including those of the murdered girls, shocked the world by expressing public forgiveness of the shooter (who turned his gun on himself). As Kristin Lyn Crase depicts the seven characters in the show, including the shooter himself and two of his victims, a powerful sense of redemption emerges.

But there’s also an intriguing part of the play that goes somewhere new. It’s the one story that isn’t usually part of the mass-shooting journalistic template: the perspective from the shooter’s family left behind. (The New Yorker magazine did it with a profile of Peter Lanza, the father of the Sandy Hook killer, in 2014, and it was a controversial story, to say the least.)

In “The Amish Project,” we meet Carol Stuckey, married to the gunman. In snippets of her life both before and after the shooting, we feel her own special pain and anguish, which is made all the more unbearable because she lacks any support from her community.

Until the Amish show up at her front door with dinner.

There is much to admire in this well acted and directed production. Crase deftly moves back and forth between her characters, and director Heather Parish ensures that the transitions are smooth yet definable. Crase’s physical choices and her vocal inflections are quite good. (Her voice gets remarkably low to portray an academic expert in Amish culture, then shifts to little-girl sing-song delivery, sometimes in mere seconds.)

One factor diminished the impact of the play for me: the decision by the playwright to switch characters so quickly and frequently. Just as I’d find myself immersed in a character and moment, bam, the point of view often shifted. (Sometimes another character “pops up” for just a sentence or two.) It was jarring and in many cases unnecessary. I’m not sure there was anything Crase or Parish could have done to mitigate this effect. If the transitions were any more fluid, we would have lost the distinctive mannerisms of each character, or, even worse, transformed the material more into a theater game than an introspective piece.

But even with my own inability to completely “fall into” the play at times, I still found a lot to admire. In a violent world, The New Ensemble delivers provocative theater. The Amish people in this situation did a remarkable thing. As I left the theater, I could only wonder: Would I have the strength to do the same? I hope against hope never to find out.

The Amish Project

Theater review

  • 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, Friday, Nov. 13; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14; and Nov. 19-21
  • The Voice Shop, 1296 N. Wishon Ave.
  • www.newensemble.com, 559-376-8803
  • $10, $12.50 at door
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