The parallels are inescapable: An apparently mentally ill, heavily armed man enters a school and randomly kills defenseless kids. How could anyone watch this play and not think of Sandy Hook?
Thankfully, "The Amish Project," co-produced by Philly's Simpatico Theatre Project and the Renegade Company, is not a documentary-like recreation of the bloodcurdling events at Nickel Mines. Instead, it's a remarkably acted rumination on faith, multiculturalism and, most important, how a rational human being can forgive the unforgivable.
That is the central question asked by the 75-minute, intermission-free program. Answers are not provided, but we assume Dickey's goal was not to explain and mollify but to provoke deep and serious thinking about deep and serious issues.
But even those not looking for an intellectual workout are pointed to the fifth floor of the venerable Walnut, where Janice Rowland unfurls some impressive stagecraft.
Rowland, the only performer, portrays a small army of based-on-real-life characters, from the mass murderer herein identified as Edward Stuckey (his real name was Charles Carl Roberts IV) to Roberts' emotionally scarred wife to his victims and a 16-year-old Puerto Rican girl whose story is tangential to the action yet central to the bigger picture.
With an imperceptible tilt of the head, a bending of the wrist or slight modulation of vocal timbre, Rowland inhabits her characters in uncanny ways that never cross the line separating honest exaggeration from caricature.
It is the kind of seriously strong performance a piece like this demands. That, combined with James Stover's sharp direction and Daniel X Guy's interesting lighting schemes, makes this production of "The Amish Project" a provocative and memorable work.
Studio 5 at Walnut Street Theatre, fifth floor, 8 p.m. Friday (includes postshow discussion with Jessica Dickey) through Sunday; also Wednesday-Jan. 26, Jan. 29-Feb. 2; 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 27; 2 p.m. Feb. 3, $22 and $17 (students, seniors, city employees, military personnel and under 18), simpaticotheatre.org.
'Catch' no hit
Unfortunately, "Catch Me If You Can" is another standard-issue contemporary Broadway offering. Like "Legally Blonde" or "Billy Elliot," "Catch Me" began life as a hit film (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks). Like those shows, it has a peppy, toe-tapping but ultimately generic and unremarkable score. It is as frothy and lightweight as "The Amish Project" is serious and weighty.
"Catch" is based on the life of Frank Abagnale Jr., who, as a teenager in the first half of the 1960s, managed to pass himself off as a commercial airline pilot, emergency room physician and Louisiana lawyer.
Stephen Anthony, appropriately boyish and open-faced, surveys the lead character with professional competence but doesn't quite light up the Academy of Music stage. And his performance comes in second to Merritt David Janes as FBI agent Carl Hanratty, whose dogged pursuit of the whiz-kid accounts for most of the story's "drama."
But those who need be held most accountable are composers Marc Shaiman ("Hairspray") and Scott Wittman. The pair follows the contemporary Broadway blueprint, filling their score with a mix of sort-of rock spiced with an occasional pinch of soul - or something like it.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the songs, but it's hard to imagine anyone will be humming anything from the show any more than 24 hours after seeing it.
And let's not even bother discussing the book by Terrence McNally ("Ragtime," "The Full Monty"). Suffice it to say it reaches its peak with this line: "More bum checks than a Prague prison."
"Catch Me If You Can" is little more than a twirl of theatrical cotton candy - a gossamer confection that doesn't satisfy.
Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, $100-$20, 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.
Blink, and you'll likely miss the latest visit by the touring production of "Monty Python's Spamalot," the hilarious musical comedy based on the film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
It manages, in the space of 2 1/2 hours or so, to lampoon everything from the legend of King Arthur to overwrought Andrew Lloyd Webber ballads to Scandinavian travelogues. The show checks into the Merriam Theatre Saturday and exits Sunday.
Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St., 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday, $75-$15, 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.
_ And if you happen to find yourself in the Pine Barrens, be advised the Eagle Theatre, 208 Vine St., Hammonton, N.J., kicks off its 2013 schedule this weekend with "A Chorus Line." The cast for this staging of the iconic 1970s megahit includes former Miss New Jersey Erica Scanlon Harr.
Eagle Theatre, 208 Vine St., Hammonton, N.J., 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and Jan. 24-26, Feb. 1-2, 7-9; 3 p.m. Jan. 27 and Feb. 3, $25, 609-704-5012, theeagletheatre.com.
On Twitter: @chuckdarrow