At an after-party for the premier of Everyman Theatre’s staging of “Everything Is Wonderful,” playwright Chelsea Marcantel mentioned that she had recently received a grant to write a musical from the story of Frankenstein, a book that has always intrigued her and is an obvious parallel to our current social media-saturated world.
Write that down, readers. Grant. Musical. Frankenstein. And put a star by it. This is your Obama moment.
Remember how Lin Manuel Miranda went to a White House event years ago and broke out a little rap ditty about past American presidents to entertain the gathered crowd and then-President Barak Obama and his wife, Michelle? Years later, of course, the Obamas – and Miranda himself in some interviews – joked about how that snippet of verbal fun became the worldwide musical sensation, “Hamilton.” Still trying to get tickets for when it comes to Baltimore this year? Yeah, good luck.
So, write this down: Marcantel. Frankenstein. Musical. And let’s compare notes in a few years. Both Marcantel and the play’s director, Noah Himmelstein, are putting out exciting work. Let’s cheer them on.
Marcantel’s current work, “Everything Is Wonderful” tells the story of an Amish family whose two sons are killed by a careless driver who collides with their buggy. That driver, seeking both atonement and self-discovery, comes to stay with the young men’s family, who is already grieving another loss. It’s both beautiful and stirring, as evidenced by the muffled sniffles from the audience at various points in the play, but has lovely moments of comedy that make the story relatable.
Marcantel wrote the play in 2014, and while many theater companies have done readings of the work, this is only the second time it’s been fully staged. The play moves back and forth between present and past, which Himmelstein arranged so that as one scene ends on one side of the stage, the action picks up quickly on the other side. It was a bit of “a dance” that was harder for the actors, he admits, because they had to get right into the emotion. But the overall effect makes a riveting show for the audience.
The first act hits so many of the right notes about family, forgiveness, cultural expectations and spirituality. Jacob the father, played Bruce Randolph Nelson, is an emotional minimalist and family patriarch many can recognize, regardless of religious tradition. But like a good Amish man, he seeks to live a good life and wishes for everyone he knows to go to heaven. In one of the most cutting moments of the play, he wonders to his wife, Esther, played by Deborah Hazlett, what he had done so wrong that God sought repayment through the death of their sons. It’s so vulnerable and true, it’s gripping.
Hazlett delivers yet another wonderful Everyman performance (she was recently in “Sweat”) that seeing her at the after-party in a pair of gorgeous flared pants is almost a shock because it is such a departure from the fearful and grieving mother she embodied less than an hour before.
Truly, the play is well cast, but another mention must go to Alex Spieth, who plays Miri, the family’s eldest daughter who is smart and bold and loving, and struggling to reconcile events in her life. In yet another well-written line from Marcantel, at one point in the play, Miri says forgiveness is a “higher ground” where people go to hide when they are too afraid to fight.
This too is said in the first act, an act in which so much is addressed that one wonders what will happen in the second act. But it does not disappoint.
Like much of Marcantel’s work, this play was inspired by a documentary about a real-life accident involving an Amish family. Nonfiction and podcasts interest her and often lead her down “rabbit holes” of exploration, she says. But if after “about 100 hours” of research a topic continues to interest her, she knows she must write about it.
This is a busy month for Marcantel: Her play, “Saint Joan” premiers at the Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington and runs through Feb. 24, and another work, “A White Girl’s Guide to International Terrorism,” premiers at the San Francisco Playhouse and runs through March 12.
“Everything Is Wonderful,” runs through Feb. 24 at the Everyman.
Photo courtesy of Everyman Theatre