The Amish Project by Jessica Dickey, directed by Laura Margolis.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Rachel Siegel; photo provided
Rachel Siegel as Eddie Stuckey; photo provided
"Aware of the thousand promises..."
On October 2, 2006 Charles Carl Roberts IV took possession of a small Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and a few hours later assassinated ten girls, aged 6 to 14, killing five of them on the spot. He then committed suicide. According to reports he was fearful that his abuse of young girls, dormant in his life for twenty years, was threatening to overpower him once again. As the father of three young daughters his fears overwhelmed him and he took this extraordinary action.
Equally odd and unusual was the reaction from the Amish community. They forgave the man for his unconscionable actions and made amends to his widow and children. The combination of remarkable actions shocked the nation. Books were written about it. Television movies about the incident jumped up to the highest ratings. Now there is a play to see that brings it all back once again.
The difference with the play is that all of its characters, including the gunman called Eddie Stuckey, are played by one actress. Originally Jessica Dickey performed her own work. Now there is a production in Hudson, New York starring Rachel Siegel who has given some wonderful performances in theaters throughout the Berkshires and abroad. Directed by Stageworks Hudsonís artistic director Laura Margolis in an almost too direct and confrontational form the play leaves many moments unanswered and sketchy at best.
This is a difficult play. Its visible characters include a 6 or 7 year old Amish girl, a Hispanic girl not directly connected with the school, a male professor of Amish culture, the gunman himself and his widow (one of the best defined and moving characterizations on our local stage). The names have been changed to protect. . .someone, perhaps the daughters of Charles Roberts, but I donít know for sure. There are characters I would have liked to have heard from in this piece, perhaps the first cop on the scene or the Amish man who reported the incident or the teacher who fled the scene or her mother who was visiting the school at the time. But the playwright has made her selection and we must work with that.
Siegel does very well with most of her characters, but there were times when I was not sure who she was playing. That, in part, is a fault of the script for the certain posturing should have tipped me off, but the introduction of characters wasnít all that clear, so the repetition of stance or gesture didnít mean as much. Siegel is in traditional Amish dress, complete with cap, so her portrayals of the non-Amish are even trickier to pull off.
The actress and the director have given us physical placement to assure our understanding of who is who and what is being said, but even so it was confusing at times. There are no clear-cut demarcations in the speeches, and so the lightning quick responses need to be better defined. Siegel is good, but her voice is not as flexible as it must be for all of this to work properly. That is the largest difficulty in this play.
Itís not the talent of the actress, for she moves us on several occasions. It is the combination of costume and voice. It is hard to comprehend her as a man most of the time. Late in the play as she does asides (speeches to unseen characters on the sidelines) her voice becomes much more flexible than I realized it could be as she held conversations with unseen people. The rapid changes of character made clear in the presentations of each of them is where the current production has difficulty.
While it is clear that the author wanted to address this subject it is hard to understand the motive for this style of piece until you look back at the playís history. Ms. Dickey played the role of actress in her own play. The challenge suddenly becomes something closer to egoism.
In Hudson the play is given as a present tense action drama even though many of the folks the actress plays are dead and also address the incident in past tense at times. The bigger issue of forgiveness is attacked in odd ways and doesnít resonate as it might. Siegel is fascinating to watch, less interesting to hear and the confusion that struck me over who she was supposed to be at times is a difficulty that cannot be overcome, Iím afraid. Itís a pity, for the actress at her best in this piece is absolutely superb, a living tribute to the talents of all the people involved in this production.
While vibrantly interesting, the show is missing a vital piece and we can applaud the efforts while mourning the losses of life and the mistakes of intention. A very mixed reaction, clearly, to a very mixed product, one worth examining, worth watching, but not necessarily praising.
The Amish Project plays through September 5 at Stageworks Hudson, located at 41-A Cross Street in Hudson, NY. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-822-9667.