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Amish School Shooting Subject Of Local Play

Actor Iliana Carter rehearses for the one-woman show "The Amish Project."
Angela Carone
Actor Iliana Carter rehearses for the one-woman show "The Amish Project."

The shooting took place Oct. 2, 2006 in a one-room schoolhouse. A gunman, the local milkman, barricaded himself inside and opened fire on 10 young girls, killing five and injuring the others. He then shot himself, leaving behind a widow and three children of his own.

Amish School Shooting Subject Of Local Play
After a mass shooting, there’s the struggle to make sense of tragedy. Sometimes art can help. At a downtown San Diego theater, cast and crew rehearse for "The Amish Project," a play based on a shooting in an Amish community.

The media descended on the quiet Amish community of Nickel Mines, Penn. where the tragedy occurred. Nickel Mines is in Lancaster County, home to one of the largest Old Order Amish communities in the country. They are a religious group that shuns modern technology and focuses on simple living.

The Amish were shown attending funerals for the five girls. There were images of horse drawn carriages, women in bonnets and long dresses alongside bearded men in black coats and hats.

And then, a surprising turn of events.

Within hours, the Amish extended forgiveness to the dead gunman and his family. Several Amish attended the killer’s graveside burial, hugging his widow. They donated money to her and the children.

That act of forgiveness is what inspired the play "The Amish Project."

"I hope that the play doesn’t necessarily seek to say that’s what we should all do," said playwright Jessica Dickey by phone from New Jersey. That's where she's in rehearsals for a production of David Auburn's award-winning play "Proof."

"I don’t think that forgiveness is a simple contract. I think it’s an extremely complicated transaction," Dickey said. "But it is an option."

Dickey wanted to imagine how that option might play out. She wrote the play in 2007 as a one-woman show and performed it herself before moving on to write other plays.

Now Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company is staging a production here in San Diego. "The Amish Project" is a fictionalized account of the shooting and its aftermath. The characters mirror real life victims and townspeople. Each character reveals, one at a time, their experience of the tragedy.

Mo’olelo performs in the 10th Avenue Theatre downtown. I recently visited the rehearsal room on the theater's third floor where actor Iliana Carter and director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg are working on transitioning between characters.

Carter, a Latina in her 20s, plays all seven characters in Mo’olelo’s production. That includes two young Amish girls, the gunman's widow, and the gunman himself. She said it's rare to have so many rich roles to play; she's often cast stereotypically and left with roles like the "fiery Latina" or "the maid."

"When the audience comes in and sees me, I want to be able to challenge their expectations," she explained.

Local director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg is directing Mo'olelo's production of "The Amish Project."
Local director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg is directing Mo'olelo's production of "The Amish Project."

Just outside the rehearsal room, construction is underway for a large building. It's noisy. Director Sonnenberg said rehearsing a one-woman play in a loud room helps the actor prepare for projecting on stage.

"She’s every day having to fill this room over all that noise so it will be a smoother transfer into the theater," explained Sonnenberg.

The characters in the play are different ages and genders. The plot is not linear, so there are multiple shifts in perspective. As Carter and Sonnenberg talk about moving from one character to another, they discover a problem.

Sonnenberg has worked with Carter on subtle changes in her physicality to differentiate between the male and female characters. Carter gives an example: "Women tend to lead with their chests, while men tend to lead with their center or a lower place of gravity." But there’s only one costume for the whole show: the traditional garb of an Amish woman which is a long, plain blue dress, apron, bonnet and simple black shoes.

Sonnenberg realizes some of the male gestures they’ve rehearsed get lost behind the dress. She explains to Carter, "if your pelvis is too far forward, you’ll just look pregnant."

Now they’ll recalibrate, adding new gestures.

Carter said "The Amish Project" doesn’t answer the question of why this mass shooting happened.

"There’s not a lot of sense that we can make from it, but that’s not necessarily the point," she noted.

The point, she said, is compassion, which the play makes clear is not an easy thing.

For Jessica Dickey, the playwright, she had a goal: "Making a piece of theater that tries to grapple with the world in all of its light and dark."

"The Amish Project’s" themes are big and weighty, but in the end, it’s a story of seven people engulfed in tragedy. There are no pat resolutions, just human beings wrestling with the best and worst in all of us.

Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company's production of "The Amish Project" runs through Oct. 20 at the 10th Avenue Theatre in downtown San Diego.