In 2006, a gunman entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, took the girls in class hostage, then shot 11 of them before committing suicide. Five girls died.
In the days after the trauma, the Amish community responded in a way true to their Christian beliefs: They forgave the gunman, consoled his widow and their three children, attended his funeral and used part of money others sent for a victims’ fund to care for his family.
That event underlies Jessica Dickey’s play “The Amish Project,” whose Baylor Theatre production opens its seven-performance run Tuesday night at Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center.
Director John-Michael Marrs saw Dickey’s one-woman drama in New York in 2009, found it deeply moving and kept in touch with the playwright after meeting her. Marrs joined the Baylor theater faculty five years later as an assistant professor of theater and acting. While looking for a play he could direct for the 2016-17 season, he discovered Dickey’s solo work had been expanded to an ensemble piece and decided on it.
What struck the director about “The Amish Project” was its human dimension, a look at the people affected by the shooting and its aftermath and its compassionate eye to the Amish.
“There’s a dignity and grace with which she treats Amish culture,” he said. “I’m sure the act of forgiveness is different than the feeling of forgiveness ... but they take the words of Jesus about pacifism and forgiveness very literally.”
The fictional characters in “The Amish Project” cut across the small farming community of Nickel Mines: Sherry Local, an “English” — the Amish term for the non-Amish — resident (Rebecca Janney); Amish girls 14-year-old Anna (Haley Evans) and 6-year-old Velda (Autumn Hodge); Bill North, an Amish scholar and spokesman for some of the Amish families (Josiah Bender); Amish parents (Victoria Holloway, Nick Carlin); an Amish elder (Graham Bryant); America, a young Hispanic woman working in town’s grocery store (Nicole Johnson) and her mother (Lauren Salazar); the gunman Eddie Stuckey (Dylan Flynn); and his wife Carol (Leah Beth Etheredge). There’s also an eight-woman Amish girls chorus. “The Amish Project” also has a little music, with Lauren Weber as music director and an original composition by Guilherme Almeida.
“The thing that Dickey seems to be driving at is what comes after (the shooting) ... It’s equally light and dark, but still incredibly hopeful,” Marrs said. “This is not a play about guns or, really, violence, but people trying to find their way after something tragic.” Talk-back sessions with cast members will follow each performance.
The dramatic action takes place on a largely bare stage framed by wooden beams whose angle suggests an Amish barn raising — or, perhaps, a razing. Dominating the space, however, are some 250 wooden chairs that rise from two jumbled stacks to form crossing tendrils suspended from above. The chairs, objects symbolic of the ordinary and the useful, move from chaos to order, the director noted.
“The Amish Project” runs Tuesday through March 26.