SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.VA., July 10, 2017 – The general theme loosely uniting the six brand new or nearly new play in this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) would seem to be “family.” Or however one defines that word in 2017. Chelsea Marcantel’s “Everything is Wonderful” certainly explores these precincts in an unexpected way.
The title of the play is the favorite catchphrase of Jacob (Paul Deboy), the aging paterfamilias of a tightly-knit Amish family living somewhere in (Pennsylvania?) Amish Country. But within the context of the play, this phrase is also symbolic of denial.
In Jacob’s case, that denial serves as a means of distancing himself emotionally and spiritually from a senseless tragedy: the automobile-buggy accident that took the lives of his two sons even as the perpetrator – a drunken non-Amish driver named Eric (Jason Babinsky) – was let off virtually scot-free by the legal system.
When a penitent Eric unexpectedly shows up on Jacob’s doorstep seeking forgiveness from the family and vowing a life of repentance, the play takes a strange turn. Jacob actually takes Eric into his household, more or less, and employs him almost out of necessity as a practical and compassionate way to replace the workforce – his two sons – that Jacob has lost.
But it gets even more complicated when we discover, via flashbacks and flash-forwards, that Jacob and his rigidly moralistic wife Esther (Hollis McCarthy) have permanently exiled their elder daughter Miri (Jessica Savage) for moral reasons that for most in the theater audience simply do not compute.
The remaining characters – Abram (Lucky Gretzinger) and Ruth (Lexi Lepp) – portray the key roles in this modern morality play, with the handsome but duplicitous Abram serving as the bizarrely direct cause of Miri’s exile, while the almost Goody Two-Shoes Ruth serves for the most part as the one, true innocent dwelling among this complicated rural carnival of souls.
As a morality play that explores the complexities of family, modern life and the increasingly strained relationship between religious and philosophical tenets and the largely secular ways of modern life, “Wonderful” is highly effective, posing key questions and dilemmas for which contemporary society has yet to provide clear answers or even the support necessary to uncover them. The play’s language, for the most part, is intelligent but quirky, peppered as it is with occasional outbursts of angry obscenities on one hand and with seemingly quirky (to us) Amish terminology on the other.
Reaching deeper, however, Marcantel’s characters tend to remain two-dimensional types rather than deeper human beings we want to know or at least learn more about. True, we do get most of the backstory behind each one. Yet nearly all this drama’s characters lack the full dimension of humanity.
Although she demonstrates some real backbone near the end of the play, Ruth’s almost ethereal goodness is a bit too much to believe. Ditto for the almost implacable bitterness that drives the character of Esther, who seems to serve as a type for the dead-ended lives of women who can never accept the positive bill of goods that supposedly goes along with marriage and the subsequent bearing of children.
Jacob remains something of a cipher. He’s enough of an individual to resist the community’s disdain for taking an outsider – let alone one who is not Amish, aka, an “English” – into his family, an act made worse by the fact that this outsider arguably murdered Jacob’s two sons. Yet he sticks to his guns by maintaining the permanent exile of his excommunicated daughter Miri even though he knows in his heart that it’s wrong. The role is written for the “strong, silent type” of male character. But as it’s conceived, Jacob’s fairly taciturn outside does not fully let us in to the turmoil within.
Eric – actually quite well-played by Jason Babinsky – is something of a basket case of moral confusion. He serves in many ways as a stand-in for today’s younger generations who’ve been cut off, accidentally or on-purpose, from traditional religion by our modern Secular City. But in the end, even after seeking forgiveness from those he’s wronged and repenting as far as he is able, we remain unconvinced that he’s really turned his life around.
Perhaps the most fully realized characters in this play are the characters whose rebelliousness – and tragic mutual folly – drive this drama’s moral inscape, namely Abram and Miri.
Without providing any spoilers, it’s the outwardly moralistic Abram who opens up a genuinely moral chasm, not only between himself and his intended bride-to-be, Miri, but between himself, the members of Jacob’s family and the religious community whose precepts he co-opts to excuse himself from his moral failings and worse.
As portrayed by Lucky Gretzinger, Abram reminds this critic at least of the slickly hypocritical Eddie Haskell, who remains even today the most memorable character appearing in that classic 1960s TV sitcom, “Leave It to Beaver.” Eddie’s studied hypocrisy, at least, was charmingly funny. Abram’s slickly-maintained deviousness is creepy.
It’s Miri, played with wild abandon by Jessica Savage, who’s really the central character in this play, serving quite effectively as a stand-in for repressed and oppressed women and perhaps even as the playwright’s emotional and philosophical doppelgänger.
Miri, already uncomfortable with the Amish way of life in her mid-teens, gets her suspicions brutally confirmed when she, as a very real victim, is punished for her victimhood by being expelled from both family and community. Understandably, this immoral act, hiding under the guise of some higher morality, turns Miri into a seething tower of rage.
She flees into the outside world after her betrayal, embracing its vulgarity, nastiness and negative absolutism. But this rebellion is continually undercut by a longing for family and acceptance that she simply cannot exorcise.
There’s a great deal of power in this play, and its moral ambiguities – shared today in society as a whole – remain painfully familiar to us all. But the play often misses the mark by allowing its characters, in the main, to remain two-dimensional types rather than flesh-and-blood human beings. Its redemptive coda also seems a bit artificial, more closely resembling an Anglican or Catholic response to sin than one that might be more organic in most Amish communities.
That said, Ed Herendeen’s compassionate and clean directing, fine acting and David M. Barber’s spare, geometric set design give this world premiere play plenty of space to work. Better yet, its surprisingly evenhanded treatment of dueling moralities is largely free of the in-your-face politics that’s not only ruining the performing arts today, but alienating much of American society as well.
For all their flaws, Marcantel’s characters seem to echo the sentiments of Rodney King over two decades ago, when he asked his famous, unanswered question: “Can we all get along?”
Rating: ** (2 out of 4 stars)
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Festival continues through July 30, 2017.