Review: The Amish Project is funny and graceful yet harrowing

When the lights came back on and the clapping had died, there was an immense feeling of exhaustion that permeated the theatre after seeing The Amish Project. The play is a one-woman act of 60 minutes with no intermission. In that time, it will take its audience on an intense, funny and often harrowing journey through Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania in the fall of 2006.

The play is based on a real event — although it is told with fictional characters and some creative license. Its subject is a shooting that took place after the milkman of the town entered an Amish schoolhouse, shot 10 girls and then committed suicide. 

The story is told from the perspectives of those closest to the incident and, instead of progressing in a linear fashion, it jumps around in time and from one person to the next. This forms a collage of monologues that come together into an ultimately moving picture of tragedy and forgiveness.

The Amish Project handles its themes with grace and subtlety. Obviously due to the nature of its subject matter, there is an inevitable religious component to the play. Yet, if you are an outsider to the theology, you'll never felt that you are being preached to. Instead, the play objectively shows a way of life and what could be learned from it without becoming a part of it. However, his is somewhat diminished by the last moments, which depart from the objectivity of the previous 50 minutes and verge more on the fantastical and unnecessary. 

Actress Susie Coodin performed admirably, pulling off the extraordinarily difficult task of seamlessly transitioning between at least seven characters — both male and female — with precision. She also handled moments of intense emotion adeptly, changing from tearful to angry on a dime. Her one misstep was in her portrayal of America, a 16 year old pregnant Hispanic girl. The accent she did was fine, but her body queues — including a hand on her hip and a raised commanding finger — verged on stereotypical and diminished the emotion of those scenes.  

However, she did work the set masterfully. In a theatre that demanded she divide her attention between two opposite sides of the stage, she never left one half of the audience wanting and used every corner of the minimalist setting to her advantage, which made the performance all the more impressive. 

There is an innate problem in one-person shows that sport multiple characters like this one — many times there was confusion as to which character was speaking. Often, the changes were not emphasized enough with lighting, music or other visual queues to be clear. These are minor issues though and do little to dwarf a play of profound emotion and heft that speak to very deep parts of human nature in a very honest way.

Directed by Evan Frayne and performed by Susie Coodin, The Amish Project will be at The Pacific Theatre Nov 6-21.