For small, insular societies, the need to maintain the community is paramount. It supersedes the individual, it supersedes justice. It even supersedes family, or that’s what those who abide by those rules are taught. But what happens when these needs are in conflict, not only with each other, but with the human condition? These are some of the themes that are explored in Chelsea Marcantel’s heart-wrenching Everything is Wonderful, now running through March 8 at Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre on Broad Street.
The aforementioned society, in this case, is the Amish of Pennsylvania. We “English” (English-speaking folks who live in the areas around Amish communities) already see their culture as isolated, necessary for them to maintain their traditions, but there’s also an organic multiplication-by-division of factions. The Amish worship in homes and barns, not chapels, and when an assembly outgrows the meeting-place, it splinters off into another, with its own bishop, and soon its own “Ordnung,” or set of rules and laws.
Everything is Wonderful focuses on one such group, specifically one family, who has recently experienced a tragedy: their sons were killed in a vehicle accident by an “English.” When the driver, Eric (J. Hernandez) comes to the family’s home to, well, he doesn’t quite know why, he is taken in and helped by the parents, Jacob (William Zielinski) and Esther (Blair Sams), and welcomed by their all-loving teenage daughter, Ruth (Stephanie Hodge). Their older daughter, Miri (Katie Kleiger), was excommunicated since she left the family after being baptized, a capital violation of the Ordnung. Among the reasons she left was an incident between her and the bishop’s son, Abram (Lucky Gretzinger) which left her scarred.
Director Noah Himmelstein, who helmed the play last year in Baltimore, uses silence and space to create an environment that is both familiar and foreign to city folk, especially Philadelphians. Those of us who have driven around Lancaster County will recognize the slatted houses, the hand-built chairs, the oil lanterns, and we imagine a serenity within. Himmelstein delivers that serenity with sequences of stillness and quiet, and through Eric’s pained eyes we see the attraction of such a lifestyle. Serenity is earned, the satisfying reward from a hard day’s work. Daniel Ettinger and Cory Pattak work in tandem as scenic designer and lighting designer, respectively, to frame this world in wood and sunlight/moonlight. And Pornchanok Kanchanabanca provides not only the sounds of the nature that surround the family farm, but also the original music that conveys flashbacks and scene changes. Together, the scene is set, and it’s up to the work of the actors to confirm or contradict any conceptions that what’s happening outside matches what’s happening in their lives.
According to this assembly’s Ordnung, when one member commits a crime against another, he should confess in front of the entire congregation, not matter how great the atrocity. The congregation responds by forgiving immediately, forgetting, and moving on. In this way, their faction can wake up the next morning, till the crops, wash the laundry, collect the eggs, and so on. Without that, everything would come to a halt. Everything is either explained as or explained by “God’s plan,” whichever preposition is convenient. And when there is conflict, the title of the show comes into play. “Everything is wonderful” is used as punctuation instead of affirmation or declaration. And life goes on. But as the family, especially Miri, learns, forgiveness is not healing, nor is it expected to be.
This may seem like an excess of exposition, but Everything is Wonderful is mostly exposition. The dramatic vehicle of the “stranger in their midst” becomes secondary as Eric turns spectator to the emotional struggles of the family. That’s not to say that his story doesn’t play out; it does, and the juxtaposition grounds the audience, especially to us “English.” The journey that the family, especially the parents, must endure is internal, and we see it through the magnificent performances of Blair Sams and William Zielinski as they figure out what it really means to forgive. Even in a society that relies on routine, there is need to grow, and if that growth breaches the boundaries of the society itself, perhaps that is God’s plan.
For tickets and info, visit https://philadelphiatheatrecompany.org/everything-is-wonderful/