On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, armed for mayhem with a load of supplies that included multiple weapons, K-Y jelly, and plastic ties. He dismissed 15 boys and several adult women he found there. That left ten girls, six to 13 years old, whom he bound with the ties. One of them, Marian Fisher, reportedly asked to be killed in place of the others. Instead, Roberts, a 32-year-old commercial milk-truck driver with a wife and three kids of his own, shot all ten girls "execution-style."
Three died in the schoolhouse, two more soon after arriving at a hospital. The five others survived, but suffered devastating wounds, the least severe of which "will be disabling for a long time, if not permanently," according to a pediatrician familiar with their cases. Roberts committed suicide as police smashed windows to get at him.
In a gesture the rest of America seemed to find at once saintly and unfathomable, the Nickel Mines Amish community forgave Roberts. They and other area residents went out of their way to show kindness to his widow and children.
Now getting its Chicago premiere with American Theater Company, Jessica Dickey's The Amish Project picks up on Roberts's atrocity and its strangely pacific aftermath. For a little over an hour, a single actor switches off among seven characters, playing the gunman, his wife, two of the girls, two non-Amish local women, and a scholar who mediates between the Amish and the outside world.
The piece's title, subject matter, and direct-address performance style invite comparisons with The Laramie Project, Moisés Kaufman's stage documentary about the 1998 hate-crime murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. But where The Laramie Project is constructed mainly from excerpted interviews with actual Laramites, Dickey calls her script a "fictional exploration of a true event." In a program note she explains that she "absorbed a great deal about the Nickel Mines shooting just from watching the news" and read books on the "Amish themselves" but purposely "did not research the gunman or his widow, nor did I conduct any interviews."
Why? To balance her "conflicting desires to remain sensitive to the real people who were affected by the shooting, while giving myself creative license to write an unflinching play."