Harrison Burns — Staff Writer
At one point in Everything is Wonderful, Dakota Klein’s character remarks on how noisy the world has become. This observation fits within the context of the play, being set in an Amish community during our present age, but it also embodies the anxiety of the modern audience member engulfed in the noise of our digital age.
Dordt’s production of Chelsea Marcantel’s play, Everything is Wonderful, created a respite from this noise. It was a quiet play but certainly not lifeless. This story of a pious Amish family shattered by evil and their journey to pick up the pieces was as moving as it was challenging.
Despite the Amish setting and culture that grounds the entire play, Everything is Wonderful did not feel foreign or unapproachable. If anything, the religious backdrop of the play was particularly poignant at Dordt University, a college also located in a small, religious, and farming town.
“I haven’t gone to a lot of the theatre productions while I’ve been here, but of the ones I’ve gone to, this one was definitely the most emotionally involving and I really enjoyed it,” said sophomore Nicholas Hembrough. “It had you on the edge of your seat through the whole thing.”
Theater professor Laurel Koerner, who began teaching at Dordt in August, directed the cast of six actors. The small cast meant each actor had individual moments to shine and together they created an outstanding ensemble. From Gerrit Vandyk’s subtle physical twitches as a recovering addict to the natural Amish accents used by the rest of the cast, the many small details established a level of authenticity that helped the play’s more dramatic moments to ring true.
And dramatic moments were not in short supply throughout the play. The story deals with heavy materials, with much of the conflict igniting from the dark evils of death and rape.
For example, Junior Johanna Christensen’s character is placed in the center of all this conflict, being unjustly exiled from her Amish community for suffering a terrible crime and returning after the death of her two brothers. Such drastic circumstances could have easily twisted into shallow melodrama, but the restrained script and Christensen’s truthful performance crafted an authentic, captivating character.
Even more impressive, this level of character development and acting is maintained through every aspect of the play. Each character in the play undergoes a unique spiritual journey, grappling with different themes of guilt, forgiveness, justice, faith, doubt, and redemption.
Everything is Wonderful does not flinch away from these hard topics and the ending doesn’t perfectly resolve these deep questions either. And while this may have been initially frustrating, it was also one of the plays that has greatest strengths. Though it is rich in religious ideas, the play wisely does not preach to the audience. Instead, it explores the delicate themes, allowing the audience to walk alongside the characters in their pain and confusion.
Though the play does not hide the ugliness of the sin, it also points to grace and hope. Marcantel’s dialogue balances the bleakness with much needed levity and laughs. The ending is not a Disney resolution that rides into the sunset, but it’s also brimming with hope. There is no “back to normal” for the family, and if there was it would likely cheapen the play’s impact, but there is a beautiful reconciliation.
Dordt University’s President, Eric Hoekstra, offered a ringing endorsement of the production after seeing the opening night performance, tweeting “Faculty and Students- you DO NOT want to miss this play!!!” with a picture of the program.
Christensen’s character observes that the phrase “Everything is Wonderful” is coding for shut up in her family. While this purposeful ignorance is an obstacle in the play, on a more meta-level, the title could be directed at the audience. The message is perhaps crafted more gently—simply be quiet and listen—but it was a clear invitation from the play and the many talented people who produced it.
An invitation to take a break from the noise and enjoy the quiet reflections of this powerful story.