Review: The Amish Project by Jessica Dickey

by Mary Hubert

photo by Erik Stuhaug
photo by Erik Stuhaug

A one-person show is always hard to pull off. If the actor cannot hold their own onstage, there is no one there to cover their faults. The subject matter must be interesting enough to watch one person tell a story for over an hour. The storytelling must make do with a set that is simple enough to work with, not against, its storyteller. And, most importantly, every aspect – character, space, circumstance, and all else – must be done with absolute specificity.

It was with apprehension, then, that I entered Taproot to see The Amish Project, a one-woman play written in response to the Amish school shooting in Nickel Mine, PA, in 2006. In this tragic event, a man took 10 young girls hostage with the goal of molesting them, shooting them all and killing 5.

Taproot’s attempt to expand on their standard material went over relatively well. Though by one-person show standards it was a traditional one, it still deviated from their standard canon of musicals and classics. The subject material felt relevant given the recent rash of school shootings, and the convention of a one-person show worked fairly effectively to portray and raise questions about this issue.

At times, I found my attention wandering – 90 minutes is a long time to watch one person, and the script tended to get repetitive in the middle. However, for the most part I stayed engaged, due largely to the quality of Marianne Savell’s performance.

Savell’s specificity was admirable. She used her right hand primarily for gesturing, with her left hand used less often. However, for each character, the left hand served to portray a different tic: one of the little girls grabbed at her dress, one woman held her hand on her hip, and another, the wife of the killer, swung it loosely at her side, signaling her simultaneous anxiety and apathy toward a world that had rejected her. These small but effective choices aided the audience in following each character, and made me invested in each person’s journey.

I also appreciated the effort made by both the actor and the script to humanize all of the characters, even the killer. Each time Savell portrayed a different character it was with the same specificity and care. Her unwillingness to make any character a stereotype made each one human.

My primary complaint with the piece is that instead of allowing the audience to draw their own inferences from these character representations, it forced us to agree with its theories. If the characters had simply been presented in a humane way, as they initially were, this would have allowed the audience to question and conclude how they wished. Instead, at the end of the piece, we were expressly told that there was a God, and that everyone deserved forgiveness. This took away my agency as an audience member, and I resented the removal of my freedom to make my own decisions based on the material presented.

The bottom line: Despite some flaws with the script and a fairly blatant suggestion of what to take away from the issues presented, Savell’s performance was brilliant in a very difficult role. See this production if you want some excellent acting surrounding a relevant issue – just be prepared for some preaching.

Mary Hubert is a performing artist, director, and arts administrator in the Seattle area. When not producing strange performance concoctions with her company, the Horse in Motion, she is wild about watching weird theater, whiskey, writing and weightlifting.