Resilience. Compassion. Love. Confusion. Hatred. Despair. Empathy. The realities of these words live within us all, often simultaneously. This is the human condition. How can one both fully hate and love? How do we find compassion in the midst of despair? And how do we walk through life with heads held high in the midst of these visceral feelings? These questions live fully in The Amish Project, a play based on the 2006 Nickel Mines shooting of five young girls in an Amish schoolhouse. Written by Jessica Dickey, this play was originally performed by the playwright, a one-woman show. In a new production of The Amish Project at New Repertory Theatre, Elaine Vaan Hogue directed actress Danielle Kellermann in this moving piece of theatre. Through both its form and content, The Amish Project reminds us that the human body is a container full of every range of emotion and experience, lightness and darkness, and we must individually construct our own paths through life carrying these things.
In The Amish Project, one woman embodies a myriad of drastically different, fully human characters—a joyous little Amish girl, a sympathetic and lively teenager, mourning community members, the conflicted wife of the shooter, and the tormented shooter himself. The story is told through many eyes, expressing a wide range of emotion and experience. Danielle Kellermann became each one of these people, moving seamlessly from one person to the next, telling their stories with vulnerability and truth. The play begins on a light note—a little girl excitedly addressing the audience—then jumps around between sorrow and elation, in and out of despair, confusion, laughter, and tears. The actress fills her body and voice with these emotions, each character with their own unique physicality and vocal quality, each fully human.
In training as actors, we learn to access every part of ourselves, discovering the empathy necessary to truthfully allow another character to live in and through us. The dualistic nature of this exists in the challenge of allowing yourself to be fully present and simultaneously lose yourself to the character. A play like The Amish Project multiplies this challenge tenfold. Yet, the fact that one woman is capable of this, and that she does it with such specificity and honesty, demonstrates the overwhelming capacity the human body has to, with the right amount of empathy, relate to any experience. And, the fact that not only the original creator of this play can perform it with emotional truth is a testament both to the human body and the power of the craft of acting.
If one could name a protagonist in this play, perhaps it would be the wife of the shooter. She is sympathetic as she struggles to come to terms with the grief of her husband’s suicide, confusion and revulsion about his crime, and the community of Amish who surprisingly extend their forgiveness and condolences. In one of her monologues, she talks about her deceased husband, saying that he was not different than any other person; we all have darkness within us, and he simply could no longer keep it at bay. This sentiment, though pessimistic, is not altogether false. It is true that we are animals: primal, irrational, greedy, and capable of hurting others. Yet nature has blessed (and cursed) the human species with intelligence, a conscience, and empathy. We exist in a constant state of dualism, caught between the light and dark sides of ourselves. This very thing is the beauty of theatre—putting it all out there, not to judge, but to recognize.
As this one character grapples with these wrenching emotions, so too must the actress embodying them. The form and content of The Amish Project are in conversation; as a one-woman show, the weight of all these characters falls into one body, and that one body must feel empathy for each person it portrays. Dealing with such a heavy subject reveals complicated and mixed emotions related to grief, noting moments of contrasting emotions co-existing in one body. Perhaps the play aims to communicate that if the Amish can offer compassion in such a time of loss, surely we all share these infinite capabilities of our own emotional life to find strength and resilience even in the darkest of times. From despair springs a message of hope and a testament to humanity. Human beings are beautifully and incomprehensibly full of emotional possibility, and The Amish Project is a perfect tool to acknowledge, and pay homage to that fact.