CHESTER -- On the morning of Oct. 2, 2006, a dairy truck driver armed with a 9mm. handgun walked into the one-room West Nickel Mines Amish School in Nickel Mines, Pa., roughly 50 miles west of Philadelphia, ordered the 15 boys in the room, and the adults, to leave, bolted the door, lined up and bound the hands and feet of the remaining 11 girls and began firing.
By the time the he was done, four girls were dead, seven were wounded (one of whom died of her wounds in a hospital the following day) and the shooter, 32-year-old Charles C. Roberts, was dead of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.
The episode is the framework for Jessica Dickey's compelling one-actress play, "The Amish Project," which explores the ripple effect in the immediate Amish and surrounding community.
Other than to make the point that these girls were targeted, rather than random, victims, Dickey's play, which is being given a profoundly moving and stimulating production at Chester Theatre Company, provides no easy answers. Rather, speaking through the voices of two of the victims, the shooter's wife, the shooter himself (whom Dickey names Eddie Stuckey) and various other members of the community, "The Amish Project" examines issues of faith and forgiveness, survival, what it means to be human, what happens when our faith systems are sorely tested and how those without faith deal with unexplainable violence and tragedy.
Implicit is the question of how a benevolent, loving God can permit such acts of violence and how forgiveness and compassion can prevail in a climate of sudden violence.
This is a tough, probing play that is as much about the craft of storytelling and the nature of theater as a storytelling medium as it is a thoughtful, smartly crafted look at the strength and resilience of the human spirit.
Actress Allison McLemore, who seems to have found a nourishing artistic home in Chester, where she has five previous productions to her credit, works seamlessly and fully as she shifts back and forth among the play's characters -- the unvarnished Vera, a young Amish girl whose eyes and face glow with innocence, purity, hope and expectation; the shooter, Eddie, who lives in a roiling dark world; his wife, Carol, bitter, angry, cynical, confused, hurt, an object of wrath and compassion, fury and forgiveness; America, a pregnant 16-year-old who works the checkout counter at the local supermarket and whose instinctive act of kindness to Carol has moving consequences; a professor of American religion at the local college who is a good friend to many members of the Amish community and serves as their spokesman at a news conference; Vera's older sister, Anna, whose own hopes and expectations, like those of her sister, will never materialize.
Working with her frequent Chester collaborator, director Daniel Elihu Kramer, McLemore misses neither a beat nor a nuance. Her character depictions are rich, distinctive, fully dimensional, all in the service of a haunting play that does what all good storytelling should do -- engage the imagination as it stimulates the heart and the mind.