“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” – Oscar Wilde
When rehearsals began for the world premiere of “Nickel Mines,” the show was intended to examine the issue of mass shootings through a theatrical lens. It would artfully give life to tragic moments in history that unfortunately continue to ravage the lives of communities across the country.
The show tells the true story of the 2006 West Nickel Mines School shooting, which occurred in the Amish community of Nickel Mines located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Ten girls were taken hostage and five, aged 7-13, were eventually killed by Charles Roberts, 32, a member of their own community. “Nickel Mines” tells the story of the community in the wake of the incident, focusing on how the community banded together and coped with the incident through love and forgiveness.
Creator, director, choreographer and faculty member of the Department of Drama at UC Irvine Andrew Palermo drew on facts from the case and utilized transcripts to tell the horrific story. The performance implements non-traditional musical numbers set to Dan Dyer’s powerful original score and several intense interpretive dance routines, which allow the performance to seemingly emanate raw emotion.
Just over a week before the show’s first performance, everything changed. Suddenly, the story of “Nickel Mines” transcended the stage when seven were killed and thirteen injured during the Isla Vista tragedy. The show inevitably became a reflection of present day reality as much as a reflection of the incident of 2006. This was further evidenced by the fact that UC police were present at the premiere at the request of UC Irvine.
“The events at UCSB reminded us how important the story we were telling was. It gave life to the piece and a reason we were telling that story,” Emma DeLaney, who played Marian Stoltzfus Fisher, a victim of the Nickel Mines shooting, said.
“When this horrible event happened, as much as we wish it didn’t, it gave us a purpose,” Madisen Johnson, who also portrayed another one of the victims, Anna Mae Stoltzfu, said.
In addition to being members of the cast, DeLaney and Johnson are also part of UCI’s Delta Delta Delta sorority, which lost two members from its UCSB chapter during the events in Isla Vista. Both performers commented that this made the experience of performing their roles feel “very real.”
On opening night the connection felt by each of the performers was evident, and rarely is a cast so visibly invested in their roles than the cast of “Nickel Mines.” The opening scene was one of the most powerful of the show. The interpretive dance piece was stunning, and featured the ten girls who were taken hostage on stage together. Despite the lack of audible cues of any kind, the performers moved in sporadic bursts simultaneously to the ominous sounds of wind blowing. This conveyed a feeling of panic, fear and confusion, and artfully reconstructed the initial tragic moment of the Nickel Mines shooting.
The use of space was quite unconventional in comparison to other performances at the Claire Trevor Theatre. The entire auditorium seating section is blocked off, and audiences sit on stage on either side of the performance. A second level walkway has been constructed around the stage and several times during the show, performers will be speaking, singing and dancing all around the audience, which provides an unparalleled level of immersion into the show. Audiences will feel as if they are a part of the show, witnessing the events that are taking place along with the characters onstage.
In addition to the incredible dancing performances, the vocal quality exhibited in “Nickel Mines” was top notch, particularly one number during the beginning of the show during which the five deceased girls, played by Delaney, Johnson, Heidi Bjorndahl, Haylee Cotta and Taylor Sanders, sang beautifully as they ascended to heaven.
The original score was brilliantly composed and is incredibly unique. Many of the songs were adaptations of actual Amish hymns mixed with a tinge of soulful gospel bordering on blues that captured the essence of tragedy, faith and the struggle to obey the core tenants of one’s faith in times of great sadness.
This struggle is the main focus of the show. Rather than examining the shooting itself, “Nickel Mines” looks at the reaction and the coping methods of the community in the aftermath of the tragedy. Forgiveness is a main pillar of the Amish faith, and at its core, “Nickel Mines” is a story of a community that finds their strength not in hatred, anger or even sadness, but in love and forgiveness. The parents of the killer are embraced by the community, as are the killer’s wife and three children. Through these methods, the Nickel Mines community was able to persevere during their most trying time.
However, not all of the community members were able to forgive the actions of the gunman. This was emphasized by the character of Samuel, a young man who was present when the killer ordered everyone out of the schoolhouse except for the ten girls. Morgan Hollingsworth’s portrayal of Samuel was the most human of the show. The guitar-playing rebel who may not return from his Rumspringa regrets not having the courage to take action at the moment he needed it most, and seems to struggle not only with forgiving the man who killed his schoolmates, but also with forgiving himself. Samuel’s character is important, as he offers a link to a non-Amish audience, representing the reactions that most people would have to an incident such as this. Hollingsworth’s skillful performance is one of the most thought-provoking and relatable portrayals that UCI audiences have seen this year.
Those who get a chance to see “Nickel Mines” will walk away in a meditative trance, contemplating their own capacity for forgiveness, their own ability to shed hatred and anger in the face of life-altering tragedy.
“Forgiveness is not for the killer,” DeLaney reflected after the performance. “Forgiveness is for the people who have forgiven him. It releases them.”
“Nickel Mines” runs through June 7 at the Claire Trevor Theatre on campus. Tickets are just $11 for UCI students and are available online at www.arts.uci.edu or through the Arts Box Office at (949) 824-2787.