In 1838 Kentucky, the women of the Shaker enclave of Pleasant Hill gather to pray, sing hymns, and confess their sins—one woman had an extra helping of soup beans, another scolded some chickens, a third wasn’t properly grateful for supper, and a fourth didn’t execute her kitchen chores with utmost vigor (horrors!). There’s an undeniable attractiveness to a community whose greatest trespasses wrong only legumes and poultry. In As It Is in Heaven, playwright Arlene Hutton serves up a 19th-century utopia with a few grains of salt and not too much saccharine.
The nine women of Pleasant Hill range in age from 17-year-old orphan Izzy to Eldress Hannah. Their pre-Shaker backgrounds extend from Rachel’s upstanding past as a preacher’s wife to Polly’s formative years on her back in a cathouse (as the Shakers believe in celibacy, no one is born into the community). By making and selling food, furniture, and handicrafts, the Shaker women carve out a comfortable existence. They each have shoes to wear, enough to eat, useful labor to accomplish, and plenty of time left over for music, dance, prayer, and the occasional sewing-circle gossip. As in any religious community, the list of shalt-nots is long. The gossiping is frowned upon, as are worldly luxuries such as seasoned food and singing in harmony. Not to mention the enforced celibacy.
Hutton, who wrote 1999’s Last Train to Nibroc, is at her best when describing how the women skirt and sustain these regulations. Izzy learns to snap peas laboriously instead of slicing through them—because “God will know the difference”—but Peggy and Betsy meet in secret to sing counterpoint. The scenes of the women working and living together are wonderful for their very Shaker-like qualities: simplicity, unpretentiousness, attention to detail. These virtues are echoed in Tyler Micoleau’s charming lighting and Shelley Norton’s unfussy costumes.
But Hutton, who also directs, was perhaps unwilling to maintain an episodic structure. She weaves in a dramatic arc that never seems as finely worked as the rest of the play. Three of the younger girls claim to see visions and hear celestial music, a phenomenon that indeed swept through Shaker communities in the 1830s. This leads to tense words and strained conflict between leader Hannah (Priscilla Shanks) and newcomer Fanny (Alexandra Geis). Shanks and Geis are otherwise able actresses, but falter amid this forced tension. Far better are the less heralded scenes, the gossiping, the work in the kitchen, and, especially, those in which the melancholic Jane (Judith Hawking)—who has buried five babies—becomes a reluctant surrogate mother to Soline McLain’s Izzy. The manner in which Jane uses a bit of spit to smooth Izzy’s hair or, ever frowning, teaches the girl to play cat’s cradle reveals more of her character than any confessional monologue or high-pitched interchange ever could.
Structural and tonal troubles aside, Hutton’s play deserves praise, if maybe not a hymn—not least for its inclusion of nine nuanced female characters. Just try and refrain from cries of “Shake it, baby, shake it!” at the curtain call.