Everything is Wonderful by Chelsea Marcantel at Philadelphia Theatre Company

           A young man, driving in Amish country, crashes into a buggy and kills two young brothers. Acquitted by the court, he is so grief-stricken, he goes to the home of the victims’ family to try to both apologize and come to grips with what he has done. Everything is far from wonderful.

            Chelsea Marcantel’s play, which premiered three years ago, is far more than what begins as a painful, but simple story. It is layered with the complex levels that are a part of every family and society in general.

           While we learn that the Amish are forgiving people- that they will turn the other cheek- they also have rules, strict rules. They have procedures to any who seek to enter their world. And there are mixed feelings by those whom the brothers left behind-  their friend, their two sisters, and their parents.

            Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production is being directed by Noah Himmelstein, who directed it last year at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore. I can’t imagine that production  being more powerful than the show he’s put on PTC’s stage. It is full of nuance, it is wrought with tension, and it has a remarkable cast, each character with his or her own story.

            We are initially drawn to the mourning parents whose who approach grief differently. But the sisters are also trying to cope with the loss. And one, Miri (Katie Kleiger), is particularly distraught. She has been ostracized from the family and is bothered when they take in Eric (J. Hernandez), the driver of the vehicle that killed her brothers.

            There are many realistic confrontations that challenge both their religion and their sense of who they are. “Trust in God,” is the mantra, but God has taken two of their own. What does it mean? And another question- What are the words that are used to say “I’m sorry.”

            Abram (Lucky Gretzinger), the friend, has sinned. He has violated a tenet of the church. Is it enough to simply confess to the congregation to be absolved? Is he free to go on as if nothing has happened? And what if a confession has the potential to worsen a situation for another?

            It is clear that some cope better with tragedy while others’ pain is more all-consuming. Marcantel’s two and a half hour feels both longer and shorter than the actual running time. It is longer because of the pain we feel for each character. It is shorter because she has created many brief scenes that move rapidly along, as more and more is revealed.

           Eric tries to figure out what he wants from this family and Amish life in general. The younger daughter, Ruth (Stephanie Hodge) , manages to cope with her brother’s death, with a light-hearted approach which provides an almost comic relief for her and for us. Abram is steadfast in the rigid beliefs of the church but he breaks the rules on a regular basis. The question of what will lead to forgiveness is repeatedly asked.

           Himmelstein has brought together these six actors in Marcantel’s powerful play to create the finest ensemble performance that I’ve seen this theater season.

“Everything is Wonderful.” Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., Phila, PA 19146, 215-985-0420. philadelphiatheatrecompany.org   Thru March 8, 2020.

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