In the growing litany of atrocities, West Nickel Mines — like Columbine and Sandy Hook — evokes a special horror, the massacre of young innocents. On October 2, 2006, a psychopathic intruder took control of a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. After allowing the teacher and her male pupils to flee, he shot all the girls, ages 6-13, and then himself. Since mass murder has become a dreadful commonplace, what was most remarkable about this gruesome incident was the response of the Amish community. Somehow managing to sublimate their rage and grief, they reacted with compassion, forgiving the dead shooter and consoling his widow and her sons.
Jessica Dickey reacted by writing a theater piece that is not so much a representation of the West Nickel Mines School massacre as it is a meditation on it. She reimagines the incident by creating seven fictional characters connected to it. They include: the shooter (renamed Eddie Stuckey); Carol Stuckey, Eddie's widow; 6-year-old Velda and 14-year-old Anna, sisters and victims; Bill North, who teaches religion at a local college; Sherry Local, a middle-aged bigot; and America, a pregnant 16-year-old who works at a nearby supermarket.
In the inaugural production in 2006, Dickey herself played all seven parts, though some subsequent productions throughout the country reconceived the play as an ensemble effort by seven actors. AtticRep's version of The Amish Project is also a solo performance, and Sarah Gise's impersonation of all seven characters is a wonder to behold. She moves rapidly and seamlessly from an angelic young Amish girl to a cynical, embittered widow to a college professor to the ghost of a killer to a sassy Puerto Rican teenager, often linking characters through the beginning and completion of a gesture, segueing via a sort of bodily rhyme. The professor, who serves to frame the story, explains, "The Amish give up individual needs to the community." If so, Gise's ability to embody seven parts demonstrates the vitality of collective identity.
The play downplays the coerciveness of an insular culture that encourages corporal punishment, discourages formal education and shuns technology. But, as counterpoint to Carol Stuckey's nihilistic shriek: "It's all bullshit!" it offers Amish empathy. Following the slaughter, the bereaved families make their way to the Stuckey home with food and sympathy (the reality was even more striking; the Amish established a fund to cover expenses for the killer's family). The Amish do not assign blame. According to the professor: "The Amish believe there is no why." Neither does The Amish Project seek to explain either depravity or benevolence. What it does is leave us wondering how we might behave as actors, not just spectators.