It’s a rare theatrical event when the most important and most involved character in a play never sets foot on a stage, has no lines to memorize and never takes a bow when the show is over.
But that’s what makes "The Amish Project" the one-woman play that opened at the Milwaukee Rep Friday night so very special. Under the perceptive and intelligent direction of Leda Hoffmann and a powerful performance from Deborah Staples, this play stands back, looks at the audience and says "Oh, yeah!"
Because, more than almost anything I’ve ever seen, "The Amish Project" pulls you in – not just as a spectator, but as a full-fledged participant, first by demanding you ask the right questions and then by demanding that you face the truth of the answers.
The play is not a historic retelling, but it is based on a true event that took place in 2006 when a milkman walked into an Amish schoolhouse and shot 10 little girls. The shooting horrified a nation and was six years before the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
In the incendiary collision that immediately followed the shooting, virtually an entire nation watched, holding its breath, as the first response from the Amish community was one of forgiveness.
They forgave the shooter; they pledged support for his wife and children. There was no talk of revenge or hate from those who had suffered the most. And for so many of us, it was just more confirmation of our fears that these Amish were so strange that we could never understand what it was all about.
What this play does is make each of us look at ourselves, at our neighbors, at our loved ones and wonder, "Could we be like that? Could we be … better?"
Because that’s what this is. It’s a story of better. It’s a tale about the most inhuman of acts met with the most humane response. This is so much more than just turning the other cheek. This is about welcoming the sinner into your home and serving him dinner.
Hoffmann is becoming a sizzling director, and with Staples, haunting music by Victoria Deiorio and story-telling lighting by Jason Fassl, this is a production that will live with you for a long time.
Staples is one of those rare actors who can carry a multiple-character, one-woman show with the kind of genuine honesty that is rare in plays like this. With her performance and Marti Gobel’s in "No Child" at Next Act, two of my favorite plays of the season are one-woman shows, each with different messages, but each finding a spot in my heart.
There is nothing phony about Staples, playing everything from a six-year old girl to an older professor to the crazed gunman who did the shooting. None of these characters was an impersonation. They were all just what they should be: individual people.
Fassl proves, once again, that he is a magician with a light bulb. He creates both place and atmosphere with the flick of a switch, and you could almost understand this story just by paying attention to the lights.
There is no right or wrong reaction to this play. Everybody who sees it is going to have it land a little differently in their laps. But the story has an incredible emotional pull, even more because it is based in truth.
The hanging of the dresses belonging to the victims is a moment when the entire theater held its collective breath. It was a moment both sad and filled with God’s joy.
But the moment that most struck home, the one that said the most about these people, was when the Amish made certain that part of the fund that was being built would also go to the widow and children of the shooter. It was that act, that confidence in what was right, that made me want to stand up and cheer.
In the movie "As Good As It Gets," Helen Hunt asks Jack Nicholson why he likes her so much.
"Because," Nicholson says, "you make me want to be a better man."
Same thing here.
"The Amish Project" runs through March 22 and information is available at here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.