Could you forgive the man who killed your sons? Should you?
Those are the searing questions at the heart of “Everything is Wonderful” at Everyman Theatre.
With a stellar cast and a tight, fast-paced script by Chelsea Marcantel, this riveting play plunges us deep into the world of an Amish family wrestling with grief, religion, forgiveness and acceptance.
The play, which premiered in 2017, has a timeless quality. Its single set is the cozy-but-rough-hewn interior of an Amish farmhouse that looks like it hasn’t changed in a century or two. The only modern touches are a new telephone at the end of the road, in case of emergencies, and the brief appearance of a cell phone.
Marcantel’s characters keep butting up against the Amish concept of gelsassenheit — accepting whatever happens as God’s will. When things go wrong, they don’t get angry. They don’t try to change things. They forgive and then they forget. Or at least that’s what they tell themselves. Everything is wonderful, they assure each other–a phrase that grows increasingly hollow as the play progresses.
Despite these big themes, the play is entertaining and often funny. From the first scene, we feel like we know these complicated people, and each scene tells us more about them.
As “Everything is Wonderful” opens, nothing is wonderful at all for Ruth and Jacob, played with warmth and intelligence by Everyman company members Deborah Hazlett and Bruce Randolph Nelson (who sports a long gray beard).
A motorist has crashed into the horse-drawn buggy their two boys were driving, killing them both. The driver, though, has survived, and soon he arrives on their doorstep, sobbing and begging Jacob to press charges.
The driver, Eric (Tony Nam), is an “English,” or non-Amish. The police wouldn’t charge him, he says, because he wasn’t legally drunk when he dozed off and crashed at the tail end of a multi-day bender.
While Eric wants punishment, Jacob focuses on forgiveness. He takes a bold step that seems perfectly logical to him: He invites Eric to stay. With his sons gone, Jacob needs help around the farm. Eric clearly needs something as well.
While Esther and Jacob mourn, and Eric learns how to muck stalls, we meet the surviving children. Ruth (Hannah Kelly) is a sunny soul who sings as she scrubs the floor and yearns for motherhood–though she hopes God doesn’t give her more than six kids.
Then there’s Miri (Alex Spieth, in her Everyman debut), once engaged to local Amish hunk Abram (Steve Polites) but now nursing a dark secret. Would her life be better if she could just forgive and forget?
In scenes that skip between the present and the recent past, we learn more about what happened between Miri and Abram, why Miri has renounced her family, and why Abram is now courting Ruth.
Eric, meanwhile, becomes infatuated with Amish culture, which he describes as more therapeutic than the expensive sobriety clinics he’s tried in the past.
Both Eric and Abram are in desperate need of forgiveness, which they seek in public confessions before the local bishop and congregation. But does Abram really regret what he’s done? And can Eric be absolved by a community that is not his own?
Marcantel has said in interviews she was inspired by the true story of a texting-while-driving accident that killed four Amish children. She became fascinated with a culture that forgives outsiders, yet enforces strict guidelines for its own people. To her credit, she doesn’t answer the questions she raises or give her characters the satisfaction of happily-ever-afters.
The play itself can be wrenching, but it lives up to its name.
“Everything is Wonderful” runs through Feb. 24 at Everyman Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit everymantheatre.org/everything-wonderful.