An unspeakable act, spoken of unevenly


Nanna Ingvarsson in Factory 449's production of “The Amish Project” at Anacostia Arts Center. (C. Stanley Photography)

Horror and disgust seem as if they are the only rational responses to the slaughter of innocents. “The Amish Project” seeks to reveal why forgiveness is equally valid.

Except that playwright Jessica Dickey never sufficiently widens the view in this 75-minute monodrama to allow for a dramatization of what in the Amish perspective allows for such a heartbreakingly generous reflex. As a result, the piece feels incomplete. It’s a picture minus one vital color.

What this production by Factory 449 — in residence in a little space in the Anacostia Arts Center — does have going for it is the rewardingly protean actress Nanna Ingvarsson, embodying all of the characters in “The Amish Project,” from the young murder victims to the scandalized citizenry. She’s riveting, in particular, as the killer’s traumatized wife, who can’t quite find it in her heart to hate him even as the community heaps its own revulsion on her.

The play, guided with a cold-eyed assurance by director Holly Twyford, is based on the sickening events of Oct. 2, 2006, when a dairy truck driver, Charles C. Roberts, entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pa., and bound, shot and killed five schoolgirls and wounded several others. As police moved in, he killed himself, leaving his family, the surrounding communities and the nation at large to mourn the victims and puzzle over the crime.

“The Amish Project” begins and ends with evocations of the powerful life force of one of the girls in the schoolhouse who, in the guise of Ingvarsson, draws sweetly in chalk on the blackboard and slate floor images of her Amish family and of Jesus. Contrastingly, the actress transforms herself into uncomprehending neighbors of the Amish: an outraged woman, talking venomously of the killer’s widow; a teenage clerk at a local big box store, who’s bearing her boyfriend’s child; and the widow herself, reacting with shock to the visit by Amish elders, who in a gesture of incredible benevolence come to her home to console her.

Ingvarsson also portrays a college professor, an expert on the Amish who in the aftermath of the massacre is brought in to speak to the assembled media on behalf of the reclusive sect. The character provides some useful information about Amish history and spiritual values. While the playwright even allows the killer a voice in the play — admittedly, a not particularly enlightening one — she opts not to give a speaking part to any of the Amish parents. In such a graphic and specific piece of theater, one that attempts to put a human face on an unfathomable act, the choice is an odd one. Perhaps the omission not to characterize their grief directly is meant as a sign of respect.

A side effect, however, is that it reinforces for outsiders the inscrutable dimension of Amish life. And why else mount an “Amish Project” if it isn’t going to compel us to share with this community something other than a sense of loss?

Wearing a long, modest dress and a traditional white head covering, Ingvarsson provides as much as the script offers in the way of fleshing out one horrific news item from the vast archives of violent American tragedies. One wishes, though, that it added something more meaningful to the annals of true crime than, principally, the details of another crime.

The Amish Project

By Jessica Dickey. Directed by Holly Twyford. Set, Greg Stevens; lighting, Joseph R. Walls; sound, Kevin O’Connell; costume, Scott Hammar. About 75 minutes. Tickets, $20. Through May 11
at Anacostia Arts Center,
1231 Good Hope Rd. SE. Visit theamishproject.brownpapertickets.com
or call 202-355-9449.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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