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As It Is In Heaven

By New York City
Alexandra Geis in As It Is In Heaven
Alexandra Geis in As It Is In Heaven
It would seem that the Shaker way of life was never destined to prevail. A society in which everyone behaves modestly, worked diligently, and lived happily in equality and friendship is a Utopian dream. Common sense would tell you that such a community couldn't survive in our harsh world, and the truth is that the Shakers didn't last much more than a century in America. Of course, you also might chalk that up to the fact that all Shakers took a vow of chastity--not the best way to keep a society going.

In As It Is In Heaven, writer Arlene Hutton introduces us to a thriving Shaker village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, that is upset when some of its female members begin to see visions. These so-called "gifts" cause the young girls who experience them to dance and twirl, see bright angels, shout out in praise, and fall into awed trances. Though all of this is supposedly for the glory of God, the other members of the community can't help but to see the girls' behavior as mere flights of fancy, excuses not to do chores, and a disruption of the Shakers' preferred, orderly method of worship.

Hutton shows how important order is to the community from the top of the play. The women enter singing and dancing in unison, dressed very much alike--no one is to stand out among the rest, as all are equal here. They sit down, facing forward, and the eldress, Hannah, requests that they confess their sins. The women individually stand up, sorrowfully admitting such grievous acts as failure to finish dinner and gossiping. Of course, they are only human, and soon their confessions seem more an excuse to make catty comments about one another as little resentments and tensions are revealed.

What Hutton does that is so fascinating is to show us people who appear to be the very picture of goodness and brings out their eccentricities and frailties. Some of these women have a weakness for gossiping, one has a tendency towards mean-spiritedness, and others find themselves looking over at the men (who live in a separate part of the village) more often than they should. Such failings may seem very innocent by modern standards, but these are apparently the sorts of things that made waves in a Shaker community, and it's fun to watch the dynamics. Hutton is excellent at drawing comedy from the situation, and the nine women in the cast play it for all it's worth. Judith Hawking is especially funny as Jane, a stoic whose ill temper seems always about to give way to tears.

The most steadfast and strong of the group is its leader, Hannah, a character embodied by Priscilla Shanks with immovable grace and a serene smile. It is Hannah who suffers most when the younger members of the group start to experience visions. As their fervor sweeps the community, Hannah tries to keep things under control but is soon faced with the reality that the rules of her community hold no sway over the rules of heaven. Meanwhile, the uproar ignites a flame in Jane and she begins to confront the past that has haunted her. Others in the group find themselves inspired to do things previously forbidden, like creating imaginative drawings and singing in harmony and counterpoint. These bursts of color and light elevate the women from a life of religious duty to moments of spiritual enlightenment.

A play with music, As It Is In Heaven is punctuated by frequent bursts of singing and hand-clapping from the group. The women sing gloriously a cappella, led by Julie Alderfer, who plays the boisterous Peggy. Their songs are joyous hymns, presumably authentic Shaker tunes; it's interesting to note that the most famous of these, "'Tis a Gift to Be Simple," is not heard until the curtain call. The 90-minute, bare bones production, well-received at the Edinburgh Festival this year, is moved along smoothly by director Beth Lincks to its satisfying and inspiring conclusion.


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