Last year, I happened upon a segment on the Today Show featuring three women who were directly impacted by the horrific 2015 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. These remarkable women spoke with Hoda Kotb about the lives of their loved ones who were taken that day and how, in just days following the massacre, they did the unthinkable: they offered forgiveness to the shooter. They spoke calmly and with resolve about how forgiveness has become a daily practice; an active muscle. Some days it came more easily than others, but they stayed firm in their commitment to return to their spiritual practice: the practice of dissolving their ego of being wronged to release hatred from their hearts.
In Everything is Wonderful, playwright Chelsea Marcantel imagines an Amish family who experiences tragedy and responds in extraordinary ways in the face of unthinkable loss. When the man who caused the death of their two teenage boys arrives at their home asking to be held accountable, he is invited to live with the family. The six characters must wrestle with what has happened even more directly now, complicated by the return of their daughter whose own extraordinary circumstances led to her ex-communication. These trials threaten to throw everyone over the edge.
When I read this play, I was blown away by the humanist heart reaching out from this crisis asking us to hold a mirror to our own grudges that keep thorns around our hearts. Here is a family who against base human instinct put their spiritual beliefs to active practice. In our world of division, discord and doctrine, Wonderful puts us in the midst of a specific community where people do the muscular work to heal, purify and see each other anew. Complications and obstacles get in the way, as they always do, as our neurosis-filled English (non Amish) world clashes with the protected Amish society and the beliefs that have kept them safe are at odds with how fast the world is moving. The play also asks us provoking questions about the nature and shades of consent, pitting not just a religious community response against an individual, but a generational divide between parents and children as well. Everything is Wonderful renames the family drama for the 21st century.
When I began working on the play, I felt an immediate connection with the ritual aspects of the society that connected with my own Judaism and spirituality. I delved deeply into the distinct culture, customs and practices of the Ordnung (the rules which guide Amish living) to ensure authenticity in all aspects of our approach. This is particularly challenging in that many Amish don’t necessarily believe in representation: photography, film or theatre; so accurate research came in the form of those who had lived in a closed community (and have since left) as well as the word of scholars. I met with one such individual now living in Delaware who spoke with me at length about her experiences I also have worked closely with dramaturg Robin Quick of Towson University who brought into the fold the correspondence and work of Steven M. Nolt, professor of Anabaptist Studies at Elizabethtown College; who has written many of the seminal texts on Amish life. It is thru this careful and sensitive work that we are able to give credible life in all facets to this piece as we rehearse and find where these people live in our bodies, then allowing us to do our expand work into interpretation.
The play has a unique structure that feels cinematic, in that it is continually shifting time from the present to the past (often with scenes happening simultaneously!) as well as private moments within the consciousness of each character. The mosaic of time that forms before our eyes makes for compelling suspense and deeply embodies the core of what the play is ultimately asking for us to pay attention to.
With these multiple dimensions to consider, our designers and I set out to devise an autonomous language: a kind of time machine box where the tension of time, our world and the Amish could collide by our own created logic. We were inspired by images of the Lancaster landscape with light pouring in thru windows and barn wood. The inspiration pointed to what would be our language, a barn space that could feel handmade, built and painted by the collective and yet ethereal; shifting and sculpting the space via sound and light. Light of the passage of the days spent outside working with hands but also the luminosity of a greater presence. This is a community that builds all their own spaces, grows their own food, serves their neighbors, lives without technology and conducts their worship services in each other’s homes and barns. With this communal spirituality in our sights as the spine of the production, we filled our barn with chairs, tables and objects to represent many locations around the community that the actors can manipulate to form different locations with ease and allow us to wipe and dissolve the space in our time travel.
In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle writes that “forgiveness happens naturally when you see that [resentment] has no purpose other than to strengthen a false sense of self, to keep the ego in place. The seeing is freeing.” This family and ultimately the congregation we become part of in Everything is Wonderful have the capacity to let this teaching reverberate and make forgiveness a daily practice. Perhaps we might pick up the phone and reconnect with someone we perceived as having wronged us; or even dissolve a thorn just for ourselves. I can’t think of anything I’d rather put on stage in 2020.