Forgiveness is the issue in “The Amish Project”

Taffy McCarthy stars in the one-woman show that explores the Amish philosophy of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. — Photo by Susan Safford

In October of 2006, an armed man entered a one-room Amish Schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and shot 10 schoolgirls, execution style. Five died before the gunman shot himself.

Aside from the shocking nature of the crime itself, what drove worldwide media attention to the event was the Amish community’s reaction to the tragedy. The Amish forgave the gunman, even to the extent of offering help and consolation to the wife and children of the killer.

The play, “The Amish Project,” presented by the Island Theatre Workshop last week, will continue this weekend. It explores the Amish philosophy of compassion and mercy and the universal nature of forgiveness. Seven characters, representing members of the community, including the gunman and one of his victims, are expertly brought to life by a collaboration of two exceptionally talented women — director Kaf Warman and actress Taffy McCarthy.

The play starts out with Ms. McCarthy offstage, expressing, in a succinct news-ticker style, the announcement that, “Man enters Amish School and Opens Fire.” The line, repeated many times throughout the play, underscores the depersonalization of a tragedy of this type, even as the play attempts to bring the human side of those involved with and affected by the killings to life.

From the first character we meet, a prattling six-year-old, to a middle-aged male professor of religion, Ms. McCarthy delivers pitch-perfect portrayals, not only by changing her vocal range and accent, but by emulating the stance, walk, and mannerisms of a variety of characters perfectly. Although the more colorful characters — a rural busybody housewife and a 16-year-old Hispanic girl with grit — are played well as caricatures and infuse some tension-relieving humor into the piece, it is with the more subtle characters that Ms. McCarthy truly shines.

With eyes closed, one could easily believe that a teenage actress was playing the part of one of the victims, a lighthearted girl on the verge of womanhood.

When the actress transforms into the killer for the first time, the shift is seamless. The portrayal is chilling but, although he comes across as menacing at first, over a succession of appearances we start to see him, not as a monster but as a rather ordinary human being. Although not given a sympathetic treatment, the gunman is seen for the damaged person he is, rather than the embodiment of evil. At one point his tortured wife says, “He just couldn’t keep his darkness down anymore.”

At the heart of the story, there is the agony of the gunman’s wife as she tries to process the horror while dealing with the ensuing shame and alienation. As she attempts to hold it together, we see a tough woman with a very human, flawed side.

The play, written and originally performed by Jessica Dickey, premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2008 and went on to receive rave reviews during its Off-Broadway run in 2009. On the play’s website, Ms. Dickey explains the fictionalized nature of the script. “In an effort to balance the conflicting desires to remain sensitive to the real people who were affected by the shooting, while giving myself creative license to write an unflinching play, I purposely did not research the gunman or his widow, nor did I conduct any interviews of any kind.”

The monologues are believable and engaging, and what at first seems like a series of unrelated vignettes reveals unexpected connections. The character’s stories start to intertwine and add depth to each other, bringing the invariably close ties of a small community into focus.

The play does not so much try to tackle the obvious questions, as it tries to present them through a different lens, or really a series of lenses.

At one point, the professor addresses an imaginary press conference and broaches the questions on everybody’s mind, “How could the Amish forgive such a thing? And why would anyone do this?” he asks.

In answer, he makes a simple statement that encompasses the Amish philosophy, “The Amish believe there is no ‘why.'”

Theater: “The Amish Project” 8 pm, June 30, July 1-3, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. Island Theatre Workshop presents fictional one-woman show exploring Amish schoolhouse shooting in 2006; by Jessica Dickey, directed by Kaf Warman. $20.

Gwyn McAllister of Oak Bluffs is a frequent contributor to The Times.