Have you ever had a conversation with someone from an Amish community? How about with a non-Amish professor who is their public representative? Or perhaps with the pregnant 16 year-old cashier who works down the road from the Amish farms? I haven’t. And even though I consider myself a very understanding person, I have a hard time imagining what we’d talk about. My life as a technology-loving (non-pregnant) musician is far removed from any of these people and therefore far from my mind. I’ve never really considered an Amish person’s experience: I find their community interesting and even have a deep respect for it but I usually think of it as a concept, not as a group of real humans each of whom is just as unique and complex as I. At least, I hadn’t until Friday night when The Orchard Theater Collective ripped my heart open with their production of The Amish Project.
This one-woman show presents seven different characters who each elicit a sincere connection from the audience. Performing this seemingly impossible task, Anna Leverett single-handedly created a hugely diverse ensemble that challenged and encouraged the viewer. Seeing this show made me realize how much I have in common with people wildly different from myself; some of whom I’d like to spend time and some of whom I absolutely wouldn’t. The unpleasant detail that I’ve thus left out thus far is that the arc of The Amish Project doesn’t take place around a barn-raising but around the real-life school shooting that took place on October 2, 2006 in an Amish school in Lancaster, PA.
On paper, I’d say this show cannot be done. The seven characters portrayed are; a non-Amish judgmental townie, a non-Amish professor who speaks on their behalf, a 16 year-old Puerto Rican girl, a 6 year-old victim of the shooting along with her 14 year-old sister, the wife of the school shooter, and lastly the school shooter himself. It feels good to empathize with honest, hard-working characters from the Amish community. It doesn’t feel good to empathize with the shooter and feel like any of us have anything in common with him. It’s a much cleaner feeling to empathize with only the victims of a tragedy. In lesser hands this show would quickly feel offensive, insulting, or wildly uncomfortable. In this production, with Anna Leverett at the helm, it felt merciful.
I’m struggling for other adjectives to describe the experience…the act of feeling empathy for someone who doesn’t usually warrant empathy is shocking. Being asked to view a murderer as a victim of his own demons isn’t easy but it’s 100% the crux of this play. In 2006, the real Amish community was quick to forgive the shooter and offer condolences to his widow and children. The surviving community members brought the shooter’s widow food. They parked their horses in her driveway, they stepped out of their own comfort zone to console her, and offer forgiveness to everyone; the shooter included.
That level of compassion is profound and absolutely worth a treatment for the stage. Further, it was worth every bit of care afforded to it by this up-and-coming theater company and every bit of ambition poured out by Miss Leverett. Her presentation of these seven characters was staggeringly sincere, heavy-hearted, and right in our faces. Anna was openly crying for more than half of the play. It felt like a challenge to not break, even from the safety of the audience. But quickly after the challenge of intensity, it felt reassuring.
The run of this production has ended, I’m sorry to report. But this company is ambitious and producing better and better work all the time. Stay tuned for their Spring production of Twelfth Night.