note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth
. On Oct. 2, 2006, the country was rocked with grief, when a lone gunman shot schoolgirls in a one-room schoolhouse in the Old Order Amish community of Nickel Mines, Bart Township, Lancaster County, Pa. During a police stand-off, he murdered five students, severely injured five others, then committed suicide. According to reports, before the massacre, he ordered male students, parents with infants, and a pregnant woman to leave. A child who didn’t speak English luckily followed her brother out the door. He then lined up 10 female students, ages 6-13, in front of a chalkboard, bound them, and allegedly shot each one in the back of the head, execution style. The survivors were left with lifelong debilitations.
The gunman, Charles Carl Roberts IV, was a 33-year-old milk deliveryman who made regular stops at some of these Amish students‘ farmhouses. He was the married father of three. His 31-year-old wife Marie was at a Bible study group at the time of her husband’s killing spree. He left four suicide notes, one for his wife, and each child.
Instead of hating the killer, the Amish families showed incredible strength, kindness, and forgiveness, visiting and comforting the widow and Roberts’ parents. They also shared charitable donations with the widow.
This heinous blot on American history rattled the nation, inspiring several non-fiction books, and playwright-actress Jessica Dickey’s one-act, one-person,fictionalized play, which she performed to rave reviews in 2009 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Dickey portrayed several fictionalized characters, rapidly switching from one person to another, never changing her costume - only her voice and body language.
Like Dickey, actress Danielle Kellermann delivers a compelling performance at New Repertory Theatre’s Black Box Theater, kicking off its festival of women theater-makers, featuring three, one-woman performances.
Kellermann, originally from South Africa and a Boston University graduate, wears typical Amish clothing - designer Emily Astorian’s plain dress, a white, fitted hair-covering bonnet, and white apron. Alexander Grover’s sparse, rustic Nickel Mines setting consists of a slatted wooden background with a window cutout, and one wooden chair.
Kellermann’s characters shift back and forth in rapid fire (forgive the pun) succession, from a little girl writing on a chalkboard, to various other individuals, whose paths are interwoven. She portrays gunman Eddie Stuckey, 33; his wife; two victims, the happy little girl, who loves to romp through the flowers, spread her wings and fly, and her teen-age sister; a victim’s kindly, forgiving father; a pregnant, Hispanic, teen-age supermarket employee - on Route 30, she says - and a middle-aged college professor-expert on Amish culture and their friend, who becomes their spokesman. He’s also our erstwhile narrator.
Although Kellermann’s performance is riveting (kudos also to director Elaine Vaan Hogue), she shifts character too rapidly,changing only her voice and demeanor. There’s so much pathos, emotion, and trauma in Dickey’s fictitious characters, we need more physical change, perhaps a costume accessory, to indicate her transition from man, woman, child, teenager, newscaster. and we need time to share their pain.
While “The Amish Project” is a terrific vehicle for spotlighting outstanding actresses’ talent, we need more. Also, this story is so gut-wrenching, it needn’t be fictionalized, nor rushed. Plays like “The Laramie Project” and its 10-year sequel, along with the haunting, horrific true story, “Our Class,” bear witness to the fact that authenticity leaves a greater, more indelible mental imprint. This story of unbearable pain, loss, and forgiveness must be told, over and over again, especially in this violent era.
The Amish community tore down that schoolhouse, built a new one, the New Hope School, on another site, as the community rallied around the families. What a lovely sequel and legacy to America’s strength.
BOX INFO: One-act, one-person play, written by Jessica Dickey, appearing through March 22, at New Repertory Black Box Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Showtimes:March 20,21,at 8 p.m.; March 18,22, at 7:30 p.m; March 19, at 2,7:30 p.m.. Check for talkbacks. For tickets and more information, call the Box Office at 617-923-8487 or visit newrep.org