“What happens to a person when they live in a world where you can’t believe anything and the things you don’t want to believe are actually true?”
On October 2, 2006, a man entered an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and opened fire, killing five young girls and wounding five others. This true yet hard-to-comprehend event is the inspiration for a contemplative new work, THE AMISH PROJECT, now getting its Pennsylvania premiere in a production on the Society Hill Playhouse’s second stage by The Renegade Company.
Standing in the foyer of the Society Hill Playhouse, you can see posters of previous productions through the theater’s fifty-plus-year history. Brecht, Satre, Genet: these are some of the names you see on the wall. Hardly light fare. These historical productions are a stark contrast to the types of shows the playhouse has presented on its main stage in recent years: Menopause the Musical, Nunsense, and now Motherhood the Musical. They are all highly successful productions, with much longer runs, larger audiences, and more enthusiastic crowds than at any other theater in Philadelphia, but they are geared toward a certain demographic, to which I do not belong.
Fortunately for me, the theater is willing to use its Red Room second stage as a venue for new and more serious work. BCKSEET Production’s recently concluded five-year residency saw a string of high-quality provocative productions (my favorite was a non-musical KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN by underappreciated Argentine author Manual Puig). THE AMISH PROJECT continues the proud theatrical tradition of the theater, and the one-woman show is worth the admission just for the showcase of versatile acting by actor Janice Rowland.
I’ve seen Rowland in a few independent shows around Philadelphia (she was excellent as in Simpatico’s production of CRYPTOGRAM by David Mamet), but she doesn’t seem to have broken into the larger theaters. Perhaps this calling-card performance will change that.
Switching characters at a rapid pace, from a young Amish girl to her elder sister to a troubled killer to an academic writer to a news presenter to a pregnant Puerto Rican teen to the killer’s wife, Rowland superbly inhabits each persona. With a few deft directorial touches by James Stover (small positional changes can work wonders), the switches seem tangible and convincing. The problem, from a dramatic standpoint, is that they occur too often, as if instigated by a restless channel surfer.
Writer Jessica Dickey seems to be contrasting a fast-paced modern entertainment with the centuries-old luddite culture of the Amish, but the effect is to cut off each character’s voice before it can realize a full impact. Dickey has done an excellent job of capturing these different voices and presenting a complex subject from a range of insightful angles. (Only the Puerto Rican teen seems slightly off-cue.) But such subject matter deserves the chance to breathe.
Nevertheless, The Renegade Company is a fairly new project (this is just its third show) and this production shows much promise. The play is ideally suited to an intimate space, and its fast-pace, high-quality acting, and short running time keep it entertaining even as it asks serious questions.
THE AMISH PROJECT
by Jessica Dickey
Directed by James Stover
November 10-20, 2011
The Renegade Company
at Society Hill Playhouse’s Red Room Theatre