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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

“The Amish Project”: How tragedy breeds forgiveness

The black box stage is bare. Actors walk on in dark simple clothing, forming a statue-like formation in dim lighting. A young girl with pigtail braids and a long black dress emerges from the group and tells the story of “The Amish Project”: a fictional representation of the Oct. 2, 2006 shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.

The Star Center Theatre presents a fresh, intense production of “The Amish Project.” The actors move the plot along through compelling storytelling, clever blocking choices, and truthful acting.

Playwright Jessica Dickey’s contemporary portrayal of the tragedy at West Nickel Mines School, a one-room Amish schoolhouse, allows audiences to peer into the psyches of fictional characters based on the actual event. This play is a form of documentary theater, basing a fictional plot on real events in history. “The Amish Project” shows the audience the thought process of a man who murders ten little Amish girls at the school, his wife, members of the community and two of the young girls who were killed.  

“It’s as if the playwright had interviews with each character,” director Jesse Desrosiers said. “And it’s unique in this situation because some of the character are dead, but it’s as if you could hear their perspectives. It’s a very interesting story with lots of interweaving moments despite them only being related through the shooting.”

The plot’s intensity and velocity can be overwhelming. However, this cast portrays the story with maturity and depth well beyond their years. The actors work as an ensemble to move the show cohesively by staging original choreography in groups and in pairs to display specific scenes. “It’s an ensemble show...there are so many parts that we thought it would be a really great ensemble exploration,” Desrosiers said. “We ended basing a lot of the concept on community, and so ensemble really lends itself to that.”   

Kara Gordon, a 19-year-old UF theatre freshman, and Aaron Kienstra, a 19-year-old UF acting sophomore, portray the scene of how the shooter and his wife met with intricate movements and specificity.  

There is no set, no elaborate costumes, only actors communicating a complex story using only their bodies and voices. That is theater.

“One of the first things we wanted was to not do it representational,” Noah Seppanen, associate director, said.  “We did not want to show the shooting, but go based more on the emotion and the text of the piece instead of just having props and sets.”  

This story leaves audiences begging the question: How much can one forgive? Derosiers and Seppenan’s goal is to make audiences ask questions and think about what forgiveness really means.   

“It’s something that everyone grapples with in the show, one way or another,” Desrosiers said. “It’s being able to look at this culture and see how forgiving and selfless they are, turning that and looking in the mirror and saying ‘Could I be more? Do I forgive enough? Am I kind enough?’ These people are superhumans at being kind. It’s interesting to imagine their response to such a tragic event.”  

“The Amish Project” runs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sundays from Jan. 24 until Feb. 3 at Star Center Theatre.


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