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One woman, many characters, one forgiveness

Artbeat

July 11th, 2017 3:49 PM

By Doug Deuchler

Blogger

The Amish Project may be hard to imagine because it's a one-woman show in which a single actress impersonates seven vastly different characters without any costume changes or props. The intertwining monologues weave together to tell from many different angles the tragic tale of Oct. 2, 2006 when a mentally unbalanced man opened fire on a group of Amish schoolgirls in their one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. 

One perhaps might think that such a show will be an exercise in sensationalism and exploitation, but that is not the case at all. Nor is this finely crafted work unappealing because of its somber subject matter. There is definite sadness but the play also includes strength and hope. It's really well done.

Oak Park Festival Theatre is partnering with Pleasant Home in this Co-Benefit Production. If you're unaware, Pleasant Home is the 120-year-old Prairie-style mansion that was designed by architect George Maher for millionaire banker and politician John Farson in 1897 at 217 Home Ave.

Performances will continue on Saturdays and Sundays at 4 p.m. until July 30 on the beautiful first floor of the historic residence. 

The script by Jessica Dickey is referred to as a "fictional exploration of a true event." Though the 75-minute piece makes one occasionally wonder just what is factual and what is the product of Dickey's imagination, the entire work is intensely moving. 

Melanie Keller solidly directs this fine production, a unique and memorable addition to their typical format of summer classics.

Lydia Berger Gray, the solo performer, is incredible. She appears in a fresh linen bonnet and an Amish woman's modest outfit. Her sharp interpretations are stunning and brave. The actress completely inhabits the characters. She never cuts corners or takes an easy approach. Each person she becomes is vivid and credible, and she makes flawless transitions from character to character. 

Berger Gray begins by morphing into a 6-year-old Amish girl named Velda who chats about her favorite letters of the alphabet. From that point on, the actress changes roles continuously. Some of the people depicted are dead, some living. These individuals include the deranged milkman who became the shooter, his grieving widow who has the town turn upon her, several of the ghost children, a pregnant Hispanic teenager who is a cashier at a local grocery store, and a religious studies professor who provides exposition about Amish customs and values.

As the show goes on, characters blend more, Berger Gray switching more frequently — sometimes it seems in mid-sentence.

What happened after these little girls were shot and killed is perhaps even more shocking. The Amish community, including even the very families of the victims, publicly forgave the gunman and extended emotional and financial support to his widow and children. 

This unflinching look at the horror and aftermath of an unthinkable tragedy is never dull. The intimate setting of Pleasant Home makes one feel almost as if we are having a direct conversation with the individuals depicted. 

The Amish Project is not an elaborate production but it is crisp, strong, and lingers. The simple set includes a large blackboard and a single chair. 

Some of the characters portrayed slip into profanity at times. 

After the performance, Timothy Klein, producer, assistant director, and dialect coach, conducted a fascinating optional follow-up discussion with the audience.

This strong work made me think how in recent 21st-century times horrific events like this one can so quickly fade from our collective memory.