Gold Mines:
A Review of Jessica Dickey’s Indelible Amish Project

by Tony Phillips

Debut playwright and multi-faceted actor Jessica Dickey picks up the gauntlet thrown down by Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, ups the body count, slashes both the cast and the chairs down to one while concocting a spellbinding tour de force that changes the very ground rules of documentary theater in her new play The Amish Project. If Dickey had as hard a time finding funders as I had trying to find a date for this tale of the Nickel Mines Amish one-room schoolhouse slayings, then its all the more testament to her genius.

At first blush, a play about the pederast Charles Roberts, who commandeered the Lancaster County schoolhouse in 2006, leaving five young girls dead and five more in critical condition before offing himself, may not seem like a light night at the theater. And if that’s what you’re after, stick to the latest Jennifer Aniston film, but if you’re looking for a mesmerizing peek into a sequestered pacifist community in direct opposition to an insane, criminal mind, then book your tickets now.

On a sparse stage, with just a single wooden chair and three paneless windows set against a black plywood cutout suggesting brush, designer Lauren Helpern gives director Sarah Cameron Sunde all the material she needs to conjure everything from schoolhouse to shopping mart. Helpern also dresses Dickey in the simple Amish uniform of blue cotton dress, white apron and bonnet with sensible shoes, perfect for the various victims Dickey portrays, but also chilling when she steps into a single white spot to give voice to the killer.

And Dickey has some particular thoughts about that voice. Unlike Kaufman’s Laramie Project, Dickey’s play is not based on hours of interviews with those in mourning. It’s just as well-researched a play, but out of respect for the deceased, Dickey confines herself to her own imagination. Still, the results ring just as true. The play takes as its structure voices from the actual schoolhouse counter-balanced by a run-in the killer’s widow has in a local market that leaves her cowering in the parking lot like an animal. The two events are held together by a lecture on the Amish whose reason is revealed toward the end of the play.

There are certain things that probably need more explaining – I only knew the Amish party machine Rumspriga via the inane albeit hysterical summer movie Sex Drive – but the play’s central mystery: how the Amish could forgive such a heinous crime and sit with the killer’s widow during the aftermath, is answered abundantly by a winning performance that’s tightly directed. And this forgiveness spills outside the theater itself. I’m trying to practice the same clemency on my no-show date even as I write this, but it was truly his loss.