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As It Is In Heaven
by Arlene Hutton
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
March 17, 2018

Cast of As It Is in Heaven
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

As far as I can tell, what’s most remembered about the Shakers nowadays is their furniture, and a few of their hymns. This somewhat austere, mysterious religious sect reached its peak in the mid-19th Century before falling into decline. Now, Mustard Seed Theatre takes a closer look at this community in their latest play, the compelling As It Is in Heaven. Through story and song, the excellent cast brings insight to relationships, faith, and life among the Shakers.

Set in a Shaker community in Kentucky in the 1840s, this play focuses on the women. There were men and women in Shaker communities, but they lived separately. Here, we are introduced to nine Shaker women with different roles in the community and different ideas of what it means to be a Shaker. Hannah (Ami Loui), Betsy (Alicia Reve Like), Phebe (Mary Schnitzler), Rachel (Leslie Wobbe), Peggy (Laurie McConnell), Jane (Jennelle Gilreath), Fanny (Patrice Foster), Polly (Amanda Wales), and Izzy (Christina Sittser) represent various personal experiences, stories, and roles in the community. The older, more established members are sometimes suspicious of the younger members, who seem more effusive in their faith, such as Fanny who sees visions of angels, and influences some of the younger “sisters” and troubles some older ones–especially Hannah, the leader of the group. Over the course of the play’s relatively short running time, we see the sisters at confession, at worship, and at work doing various tasks for the community. The emphasis is on simplicity, and even singing their songs in harmony is frowned upon by some of the older members, although the younger sisters continue to challenge the status quo. We also hear various background stories about the sisters, and what led them to join this community, what keeps them here, and what they think about the new things that are happening–visions, drawings supposedly “sent” from the Shakers’ deceased former leader, Mother Ann.  There isn’t a linear story as much as a series of vignettes and a building sense of tension over the “new ways” vs. the “old ways”, with some intriguing looks at ideas such as tradition vs. change, faith and doubt, generational tensions, and group thinking vs. individualism.

The cast here is strong all around, with standout performances from Foster as the somewhat reluctant visionary Fanny, Loui as the conflicted, self-doubting leader Hannah, Gilreath as Jane and Wales as Polly, who have both had difficult issues in their pasts, McConnell as eager baker Peggy, and Sittser as the youthful, optimistic Izzy. The whole ensemble is strong, though, with excellent group chemistry lending to the overall “family” feeling of this community of sisters who love each other, but don’t always get along or view life the same way, despite being members of the same devout community.  The singing is also a highlight, as the sisters sing a variety of hymns, mostly in unison but occasionally–and controversially–in harmony.

The set here is simple and elegant, as reflecting of the subject matter of this play. Set designer Cameron Tesson has created a space that represents the community’s meeting space, as well as suggestions of the surrounding land. Jane Sullivan’s costumes are also appropriately suited, with excellent period detail. Zoe Sullivan’s sound and Bess Moynihan’s evocative lighting also contribute well to the overall atmosphere of simplicity and devotion, with an ocasional air of the mysterious, as well.

I’ve used the word “simple” a lot in this review, and that’s fitting since simplicity was a revered ideal among the Shakers portrayed here. Still, “simple” is only part of the story, and the characters are richly portrayed, as are their stories. As It Is in Heaven shows the contradictions and restrictions as well as the joys of life in this unusual community, with vividly portrayed characters and a strong sense of music. Simply stated, it’s well worth seeing.

Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting As It Is in Heaven at Fontbonne University until March 31, 2018.

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