“Forging Communities of Virtue”
A review of
The Amish Project.
A Play By Jessica Dickey.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
The Amish Project.
A Play By Jessica Dickey.
Paperback: Samuel French, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
[ Watch an interview with the playwright about this play… ]
I was born with a little bit of Amish blood in my ancestry and over the years, I have been fortunate to have had interactions with Amish communities in five different states. Although I have some significant theological differences with the Amish, I deeply respect their communities and think that modern Western culture can learn much from their way of life. I was intrigued therefore to hear that Jessica Dickey had penned a new play – her debut as a playwright – that reflects on Amish culture and specifically the tragedy of the Nickel Mines shooting. We typically don’t review plays here in The Englewood Review of Books, as plays are best reviewed in their performance, not simply in the reading of the text, but I did want to draw attention to this new work, The Amish Project. Dickey’s play, a one-woman show that debuted off-Broadway in New York at the Rattlestick Theatre with Dickey herself in the acting role, offers a poignant exploration of the Nickel Mines shooting – through the eyes and ears of a cast of seven fictional characters. Dickey’s writing has rich, poetic qualities throughout, spare and exquisite *.
The characters that Dickey uses to explore the many sides of this tragedy are Anna and Velda, two Amish girls who become victims of the shooting, Eddie Stuckey (the shooter) and his wife Carol, Sherry (a resident of Nickel Mines), Bill North (a scholar and expert on Amish culture) and America (an Hispanic teen, who works at a local grocery). The play consists of a series of vignettes in which the characters reveal experiences they had before, during and after the shooting. The bulk of the play is focused on explaining Amish culture and the effect that its centuries-old tradition has in producing the virtues of compassion and forgiveness that they humbled displayed in the aftermath of the shooting. Dickey certainly gets Amish culture right and it seems that the grand success of the play is its narration of the formative power of Amish culture. Dickey portrays for us a people who not only have learned forgiveness from their earliest days of persecution in Europe (the play includes a creative retelling of Dirk Willems’ story from The Martyrs’ Mirror, a key historical text in Amish and Mennonite communities), but who also aligned themselves in a tradition of following Christ that was defined by not returning evil for evil (Although The Martyrs’Mirror focuses on telling the persecution stories of the early Anabaptists, it also defines a tradition of non-resistant Christianity that goes back to the days of Christ and the Apostles.)
The play concludes with depictions of the freedom of forgiveness as it expands out from the Amish after the shooting like ripples on the surface of a still pond. Dickey gracefully and beautifully crafts this healing turn of events. The Amish Project is a deep, sorrowful, but ultimately hopeful depiction of humanity. Let us be clear though, the deeper hope is not the ripples of forgiveness in the aftermath of a tragedy – important as that may be – but rather in the words of contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre from the conclusion of his epic work After Virtue, in: “the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.” The Amish offer us one deeply-rooted example of this type of community, and in Dickey’s elegant portrayal of their story, we are challenged to reflect on how other such communities – perhaps even ones that dodge some of the deep flaws of Amish life – might emerge in our own particular places.
This play is well-worth the reading, but as it begins to cast its own sort of ripples, being staged in places beyond New York, as it inevitably will be, I encourage you as you have the opportunity to invest in actually going to the theatre and seeing it performed. You will not be disappointed, and maybe, just maybe, in spite of the violence and barbarism of our times, we may begin to see the emergence of communities that will follow in the virtues of the Amish and outlast and ultimately overcome the violence.
* I wish I could include here some brief examples of her writing from the play, but the text of the play that I received was clearly marked that no part of the play should be reproduced without the consent of the publisher.