I never met Anna Mae Stoltzfus, but for five years, I lived on her uncle’s farm in Intercourse, Pa. Anna Mae was one of 10 Amish girls shot on Oct. 2, 2006, at a schoolhouse in the small community of Nickel Mines, about 15 miles southeast of Lancaster. That was the day, more than any other, that I wished I was back at my old job as a reporter at the Intelligencer Journal, Lancaster’s morning newspaper. I had left the paper 18 months earlier, moving out of state for the promise of working for a bigger paper if I earned a master’s degree. But that day, I was hunkered over my computer, reading headlines and wishing I was out on those hilly, fence-dotted fields, once again working to be the voice in the media that could explain the Amish better than a CNN scroll.
I never thought I’d write about the shootings, until eight years later, when a theater director sent me an e-mail in April to say he was producing a play called “The Amish Project.” He described it as “a fictionalized account of the Nickel Mines shooting which stunned the nation.” He found the script “provoking” and the production “compelling.” He hoped I would write something.
Which I am. Although this is probably not what he expected. Factory 449’s production of the “The Amish Project” at Anacostia Arts Center stars Nanna Ingvarsson, a local actress who said she had not heard of the school shooting until Rick Hammerly, producing director of Factory 449, handed her the script. I knew of the play — it premiered in New York in 2008 — and had long since filed it away under the category of Works of Art That Should Not Exist. When you live among the Amish, you grow numb to their depictions in popular culture, with the exception of “Witness,” which everybody loves. More often, the Amish are either exploited (“Amish Mafia’’) or romanticized (Goodreads lists “Amish Romance” as a genre).
Sitting in a dark theater in Anacostia on opening night, I watched “The Amish Project” with as much of a sense of relief as one can have while viewing a tragedy. The play is not flawless, as The Post’s theater critic Peter Marks has noted. But with regard to the Amish and Lancaster County, playwright Jessica Dickey got many things right. She did her homework and created a play that consciously splits the difference between capitalizing on the public’s fascination with the Amish as freaks and the perception that they’re smiling peacenik peasants.
That’s been my own mission of sorts, anytime someone brings up the wait-you-lived-on-an-Amish-farm question. I tell stories about how much the Amish love hockey and snowmobiles and drum-and-bass music. Those anachronisms are not explored in “The Amish Project,” but Ingvarsson does portray seven different characters, one of whom is described as “a professor of American religion at a local university.” In real life, he is Donald B. Kraybill, a senior fellow at Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. “Bill North,” as Kraybill is known in the script, answers questions and speaks for the Amish adults. The pretext is that he’s holding a news conference for the dozens of media types who descended on Nickel Mines after the shootings. It’s clever, and Kraybill, whom I called up recently to chat about the play, agreed.
“I think [I] worked pretty well as a dramatic device to provide context that otherwise you don’t get from the individual characters,” he said.
As she was developing the play in 2008, Dickey contacted Kraybill to ask some questions. But he was skeptical, skipped both New York productions, at a fringe festival and off-Broadway at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, and has turned down multiple opportunities to speak at theaters that have staged the play since. He didn’t see it until 2012, when he happened to be in Amsterdam for a conference while Dickey was performing the one-woman show in the Netherlands.
“I was very taken by it, and impressed by it,” Kraybill said. “She really shows the contrasting perspectives from the different people who were involved in the story. It makes them very human. It shows the pathos, and the pain, and the tragedy. The Amish don’t use drama as a medium themselves. I’m not saying they would like it, but I felt it articulated some feelings that would have been reasonable for them to have.”
Several times in the 80-minute show, I came close to tearing up, but there were also moments when I smiled. I feel a great affection for Kraybill. He’s not a publicity-hound academic; he’s fallen into this role, and after the shooting, he patiently fielded hundreds of calls. But he would also take queries from local reporters once a week. I quoted him in my 2002 piece on buggy lighting and the question of whether adding holographic tape and LEDs were safety measures or a worldly display. And in 2004, we talked about Republican efforts to rally the Amish for George W. Bush. I was the only journalist allowed into the Intercourse polling station, because my driver’s license identified me as a resident. As a tenant living in the renovated tobacco shed on Ben Stoltzfus’s farm, I had an entree to the Amish community that other reporters didn’t have.
Only one story brought me anywhere close to the horror of the shooting, and that was one night when I tried to drive home from work and found my road blocked by what turned out to be a fatal accident. A drunk driver had struck a buggy, pulled his Jeep off the road and was running through cornfields while a police helicopter hovered overhead. When I flashed a press pass, a state trooper pointed his flashlight at a dead baby in the road. I didn’t sleep that night or for several nights after. Had I still been working Lancaster in 2006, God knows how I would have processed covering the shootings while, in the farmhouse 50 yards away, my landlords were grieving.
The Stoltzfuses had nine children, four of whom were still at home when I lived on the farm. I grew quite fond of their daughter Vera, who would cat sit for me and always hand-stamped a Christmas card and shaded in the designs with pastels. In a religious community in which women have few occupational choices, being an artist is sometimes an option. I knew a young slate-painter who took special orders at a farm stand, then allowed you to pick up paintings in her totally unadorned kitchen.
“The Amish Project” opens with Ingvarsson portraying a 6-year-old victim of the shooting. She’s drawing a kangaroo on a chalkboard, and later in the play, she’ll scrawl silhouettes of her classmates on the black floors of the stage. Like using Kraybill to provide exposition, the drawings are a great dramatic device. Those chalk silhouettes have allowed theatergoers from New York to Amsterdam to Washington to grieve for the five girls who were fatally shot that October day. And as for me, I feel that I finally know Anna Mae. I just think she probably would have drawn the silhouettes better.
Ritzel is a freelance writer and critic who writes The Post’s Backstage theater column. From 2000 until 2005, she was a staff writer at the Intelligencer Journal in Lancaster, Pa.
The Amish Project closes Sunday at Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Rd. SE, Washington; www.anacostiaartscenter.com.