Chelsea Marcantel’s “Everything Is Wonderful” receives its local premiere at Philadelphia Theatre Company, Feb. 14-March 8. The play explores forgiveness and community in the aftermath of a horrific accident. Out director Noah Himmelstein, who helmed the play last year at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre, returns to stage the drama once again.
PGN recently spoke with Himmelstein about getting the play’s tone just right, working in Philadelphia and what attracts him to projects. Some responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Can you tell me a little about the plot of “Everything Is Wonderful”?
Our playwright Chelsea Marcantel was inspired by a story where a driver was texted and hit an Amish buggy, and she imagined what would happen in the aftermath. There have been so many horrific events — either accidents or violent acts — perpetrated on the Amish, and their response has been one of enormous compassion, tolerance and forgiveness. Chelsea imagined a story where an addict crashes into a buggy and two teenage boys perish. He goes to the family’s home when he’s hit rock bottom, and he asks for them to press charges. He feels he needs to be held accountable. They invite him to live in their barn. Jacob, the father character, tells him that he needs him there for his own forgiveness so that he can face it daily as an active practice. Half the play is set in the past, and you learn that the family’s oldest daughter was excommunicated five years earlier. The crash brings her back.
What attracted you to this story?
When I read it, I was really moved by the Amish spirituality. Instead of most religions that ask you to believe in someone else’s experience, they ask you to experience spirituality on your own. What does that feel like in terms of ritual, behavior, compassion? The play is very nuanced and very layered. The secondary narrative about why Miri, the older daughter, left deals with issues of assault within the Amish community. That was so fascinating and so topical. It brings the initial play we thought we were getting into in a much deeper experience and into the conversations we’re having around consent and gender norms. There’s just a lot to chew on, and structurally it’s a feast for a director.
How does it feel to come back to this play, in a new city with a new set of actors, after having directed a previous production?
I learned a lot from how people responded to the play last year, which was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. People were writing to the theater, emailing me through my website, reaching out to the actors. They were writing about how this particular community could impact us in such a universal way. It caused people to want to call people they felt disconnected with, or to rectify something in their own lives. But the play is so rich that I basically threw out my notes from last year and approached it from scratch. I’ve grown in the last year. The world has evolved, in terms of the horrors and divisions of the country. There’s a need for a story like this about forgiveness that is not political but is very humanist. To me, it addresses what’s happening in our country in a very rich, character-based way that’s not at all about politics. And the company of actors here is so different from the cast we had last year. I knew they were going to bring their own ideas to the process. They have taught me so much about the play in our shared discovery of it. It would be a mistake to try and just replicate what we had before.
How have you enjoyed working in Philadelphia?
I live in New York, and I love being in a city, but Philly feels more relaxed. It’s a little bit of a low-key city. I love visiting restaurants and museums. My partner has been able to visit on weekends, which has been great because New York is so close. Working on a new play is a grueling process, and at the end of the day, you just have to go home and unplug a bit. We were hoping to go to Lancaster on Monday to get a little more of the story’s local color, but we were all kind of zonked. But we’re invigorated by the play.
For tickets and information, visit https://philadelphiatheatrecompany.org/everything-is-wonderful/.