Illuminating empathy

The Philadelphia Theatre Company presents Chelsea Marcantel’s ‘Everything is Wonderful’

4 minute read
A story about men’s places becomes so much more: William Zeilinski and Katie Kleiger in PTC’s ‘Everything is Wonderful.’ (Photo by Mark Garvin.)
A story about men’s places becomes so much more: William Zeilinski and Katie Kleiger in PTC’s ‘Everything is Wonderful.’ (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

It’s pure chance that Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of Chelsea Marcantel’s Everything Is Wonderful opened at roughly the same moment Elizabeth Warren eviscerated Michael Bloomberg in the latest Democratic debate. But it’s no coincidence women’s righteous rage—repressed by entire social/religious/political structures, smothered by powerful men, ignored by everyone for whom it’s inconvenient—reached a boiling point on multiple, simultaneous stages.

More than Plain

This unexpected thematic twist appears in a drama ostensibly following the journey of Eric (J Hernandez), a drunk driver who smashes into an Amish buggy, kills a family’s two sons, and tries to make amends by working their farm. That it was written by a woman makes what could have been a tale about men’s place in a patriarchal culture into so much more.

By the time Eric arrives at the family’s front door stammering apologies in the play’s opening scenes, there’s been a scandal, an excommunication, two funerals, and a whole lot of tested faith, all yet to be revealed. There’s little that’s plain about these “Plain people.”

What we (and he) see are the dead boys’ pious, humble father, Jacob (William Zielinski); their mother, Esther (Blair Sams), whose image could appear under the dictionary definition of “forbearance”; and sweet, delightful little sister Ruth (Stephanie Hodge), all brimming with the desire to forgive Eric his trespasses. Set apart from this family circle is eldest sister Miriam (Katie Kleiger), who left home after an apparent dispute with her intended, Amish hunk Abram (Lucky Gretzinger), and remains unforgiven.

Where cracks grow

There’s much discussion of both the Ordnung and Rumspringa, which are, perhaps, the yin and yang of Amish life. The former represents a set of rules adopted by each Amish community to help its members live simple lives and follow biblical laws. During Rumspringa, however, starting in an Amish person’s teens and usually ending when they decide to either accept baptism or leave the community, kids try out worldly living for a while. Abram tells Miriam that during his Rumspringa, he plans to buy a truck and try cocaine, whatever that is.

For a while, it seems everything in this world exists in opposition to something else: senseless deaths vs. a life redeemed; rebellious Miriam vs. submissive Ruth; Amish structure vs. the chaotic World; gentle Jacob vs. impenetrable Esther. And then these neat divisions begin to crack.

First it happens literally, as Sams’s Esther sneaks outside, rigid, smashing an entire basket of eggs, one by one, against the barn wall, her long-retained misery loosening with each dripping yolk. Then it happens with Miriam’s assistance, as she returns from the outside, her very presence illustrating the greys between the Ordnung’s black and white, and the ways in which G-d’s will makes a too-easy elision into man’s.

What truths are hiding underneath? Katie Kleiger and Lucky Gretzinger in PTC’s ‘Everything is Wonderful.’ (Photo by Mark Garvin.)
What truths are hiding underneath? Katie Kleiger and Lucky Gretzinger in PTC’s ‘Everything is Wonderful.’ (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

Welcoming and forbidding

Aside from a too-heavy (and emotionally jarring) reliance on Eric as a comic foil, there are strokes of excellence in Noah Himmelstein’s direction. Zielinski’s Jacob always seems to keep his head slightly bowed, whether from the weight of his troubles, his service to G-d’s will, or some combination. His thoughtful silences, paired with Gretzinger’s quavering confidence—a contradiction of squared shoulders and limp arms—and Hernandez’s often-irrational exuberance, illustrate men trying to figure out their place in cultures that value them more than they value themselves. And once Kleiger’s Miriam lets her fury loose on the whole lot of them, she blasts right through every last nicety to the truths hiding beneath.

That precarious shelter is echoed in Daniel Ettinger’s set and Cory Pattak’s lighting, which, by turns, reflect a rustic façade covered with quaint folk-art landscapes, the brownish-gold interior warmth of hand-placed timber boards, or the drafty gray of a cold, worn-out barn. Like the people it represents, these walls can be welcoming or forbidding depending on what’s happening at any given moment.

Humanity at the table

Marcantel also penned Airness, a criminally underproduced and endearing play about an air guitar competition. If she could illuminate the humanity in someone fake-shredding Joe Satriani, it should be no surprise that this complicated piece evinces deep empathy for all its subjects. And yet, it’s still surprising how deep, and yes, illuminating, that empathy goes.

With forgiveness at the forefront, and, as Jacob explains to Miriam, reconciliation to follow in its own time, everything is not wonderful in those bucolic farmlands. But at the very least, some things can be made better when g-dliness saves a place at the table for the humane.

What, When, Where

Everything Is Wonderful. By Chelsea Marcantel. Directed by Noah Himmelstein. Philadelphia Theatre Company. Through March 8, 2020, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 985-0420 or

The Suzanne Roberts Theatre is an ADA-compliant venue, with wheelchair seating available on the orchestra and mezzanine levels.

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