By Rowena Lindsay, inside editor
The set is simple. A single chair and the façade of a log cabin are all that occupy the stage, but actress Danielle Kellermann fills the space with her dynamic portrayal of seven different characters to tell the tragic tale of a school shooting from all angles.
“The Amish Project,” a new show running at the New Repertory Theatre, tells the story of the 2006 murder of five girls taken hostage in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa. The play was written by Jessica Dickey and is directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue.
“The Amish Project” is the first in a series of three one-woman shows the New Repertory Theatre is presenting for its Next Rep Black Box Festival celebrating women in theater. The other two are “Stronger Than Wind,” opening March 23 and “God Box,” opening April 6.
The characters Kellermann portrays include an Amish girl, the wife of the shooter, a religious studies professor, several townspeople and even the shooter himself. Their intertwining monologues chronicle the shooting and its aftermath.
Kellerman switches seamlessly between characters, her transitions aided by lighting and sound effects. At the beginning of the play, each character was given a longer segment to introduce themselves and acquaint the audience with the character. As the show went on, however, the characters began to blend more, with Kellermann switching more frequently, sometimes even mid-sentence, from one character to another. The effect was a frantic chorus of voices that portrayed the panic of the situation.
Kellermann’s performance is masterful. Impersonating seven vastly different characters for an hour without breaks, props or changes in costume, she takes on the weight of a heavy story all by herself and pulls it off nearly flawlessly. She enthralls the audience from the first lines of the show as an Amish girl talking about her favorite letters of the alphabet, to her last lines as the wife of the man who shot that same Amish girl, saying, “Can you see him? God is here.”
While all of the characters were well-developed and played an important role in the show, the wife of the shooter is by far the most interesting. Her tortured thoughts about how if she had been a better wife, maybe her husband wouldn’t have killed the girls, how she still loves him and how the town turned on her, were incredibly moving. Her perspective is one not often given much attention in media coverage, which made it more special.
While never condoning violence, the show looks fairly at everyone involved.
The shooter says, “I am more than the why,” as he tells the audience that he won’t explain why he killed the girls, but he will talk about his favorite color and how much he loves his children.
In turn, the religious studies professor explains that “the Amish believe there is no why,” and that is how they are able to forgive the shooter and offer condolences to his family.
The professor explains and interprets Amish culture to the audience, which contrasts with the other portrayals of the religion in the show: the townspeople’s utter lack of understanding and the Amish girl’s naïve perspective.
The show itself is difficult to digest, but Kellermann’s incredibly moving performance makes it easier. The audience was stunned into an awestruck silence at the end, as it was left to ponder the roles that empathy, hatred, misunderstanding and forgiveness play in life.
“The Amish Project” is playing at the New Repertory Theatre through March 22. Tickets are $36 and can be purchased by calling the box office or visiting the theater’s website, www.newrep.org.
Photo courtesy Andrew Brilliant, Brilliant Pictures