The story of a prosperous Shaker community that is disrupted by three young newcomers, Arlene Hutton’s As It Is in Heaven provides a fascinating glimpse into a turbulent time in Shaker history, when the Shakers’ orderly, Puritan modes of worship were being slowly transformed into something more visionary and ecstatic.
Produced by the College of Charleston’s Theatre Department, the play is an ensemble piece that focuses on nine Shaker women. Hannah is the eldress, or head of the women, and she seems to be struggling with an unruly crop of newcomers that includes a deeply sad woman who has lost five children, a non-believer given to frivolity, and a girl who insists she sees visions of angels. Although one would think such visions would be welcome to this devout group of people, instead they are seen as a disruption and eventually even a threat to the tranquility of the village.
All the student actors do a fine job of portraying their plain-spoken characters who, although they dress the same in simple dresses and bonnets, all have wildly individual reasons for being in the Shaker village. Leah Anderson as Hannah, Ashley Gennarelli as Phebe, and Katie Metz as Rachel, all older Shakers, deserve special recognition — each plays her matronly role quite convincingly, especially for students in their twenties.
Indeed, the acting is very strong across the board, as is the unaccompanied singing, which frequently serves to introduce different scenes throughout the play. The few problematic issues of As It Is in Heaven come from the dramatic structure — because the story unfolds in a series of vignettes that often seem only loosely connected, it was difficult to tell what, exactly, that story was getting at.
At the beginning of the play we see an interrogation scene, in which the older Shaker women are rapid-firing questions at the three girls who claim to see visions. It’s clear that the girls are in trouble, or are at least not trusted, but why — and especially, why such a peaceful group would engage in police-style interrogation — is not clear until much later in the play. This scene is repeated almost if not completely verbatim during the show’s last 20 minutes or so, where it’s much more effective. That gives rise to the question of why it’s included in the beginning in the first place.
One other problem is the characterization of Polly, one of the newcomers who professes herself to be a non-believer (according to the program, Shaker villages were so prosperous and their communities so attractive that people who had no intention of converting would often join them for a while, enjoying the comforts of shelter, warm clothing, and food). Polly (Celeste Margot Riddle), who came to the village from a brothel, is high-spirited and impertinent, yet soon starts giving the other Shaker women drawings that she says are divinely inspired. She seems quite serious about this belief, yet in the next scene goes immediately back to her old self, without any evidence of development or change. This doesn’t seem to be the fault of Riddle, but rather of the writing or directing.
Despite these flaws, As It Is in Heaven is still very much a play worth seeing. It’s certainly interesting from a historical point of view, and it’s moving emotionally too — especially in that last third, when the issues at stake become more clear.
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