— Photo by Emily Cooper. Pictured: Susie Coodin.
THE AMISH PROJECT
Pacific Theatre’s The Amish Project, like Nirbhaya, currently on stage at The Cultch, tries to make theatrical sense of an almost unspeakable atrocity. Both feature brave scripts and brave performances such that writing a critical review feels somewhat inappropriate, a violation of something. Nevertheless, both are carefully constructed and produced theatre pieces, which is why they warrant reviews. In both cases I admired a lot about the show and I left both feeling dissatisfied.
Whereas Nirbhaya deals with a recent gang rape and other sexual crimes in India, The Amish Project concerns the aftermath of the 2006 mass murder of ten young Amish schoolgirls in Pennsylvania. A local man, sexually obsessed with them, entered their schoolhouse and shot them all, then himself. The script by Jessica Dickey asks two major questions: why did he do it, and how could the Amish families of the victims find it in themselves to forgive their children’s murderer? Neither question is really answered.
The Amish Project is an hour-long solo show. Dressed as an Amish schoolgirl, Studio 58 grad Susie Coodin plays half a dozen characters on a bare stage, including one of the murdered girls (the only Amish character she portrays), the killer and his wife, a male university lecturer and two other women. Director Evan Frayne uses Jonathan Kim’s lighting and James Coomber’s sometimes intrusive soundscape to help shape the often confusing shifts between characters and time frames.
Coodin does her strongest work as the killer’s wife, who is also the play’s most fully formed and articulate character. Bitter and confused, still convinced that her late husband was a good man, left alone to deal with her two sons, and called “sicko” at the supermarket, she struggles with the forgiveness of the Amish parents who visit her home. She rejects what she feels are their simplistic rationales: that “there is no why,” that “we must trust in God”—which is really all we get to hear of their thinking. But she is somewhat movingly transformed by their generosity.
Coodin also does justice to the brooding killer, although the script gives him minimal stage time and offers little in the way of explanation for his monstrous crime, other than a hint of sexual psychopathology. A pregnant 16-year-old Puerto Rican girl named America (!!), who works at the local market and has some contact with the wife, gets way too much stage time. And the central role of Velda, the dead girl, is often cloying in both the writing and performance, though she has some powerful moments at the end.
The uneven writing and rapid character shifts required by the script pose significant challenges for the performer, and Coodin does an admirable job within her range. But it would take a bravura actor, a young female Eric Peterson, to make the most of this. The theatrical economy of using a single actor for all the roles ultimately cheats the audience of access to the kinds of fully fleshed-out characters and fully informed performances that might provide more satisfying answers to the play’s own questions.
I’d like to see a version of The Amish Project with four actors playing developed versions of the girl, the killer, the wife and one of the Amish parents. Why not give the Amish adults a voice and lose the secondary non-Amish characters who provide little more than a distraction here?