by Hugh Hunter
“As It Is In Heaven” by Arlene Hutton introduces you to the exotic world of the Shakers. Now running at Old Academy Players, the play is set in the utopian village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, in 1838.
In her matter-of-fact way, eldress Hannah (Carla Childs) explains that the closest we can come to knowing God is to love each other. Hannah spent 10 years creating a disciplined village where work and penance mixes with song and dance in order that such love may flourish.
But Hannah’s world is not enough to consume all the energy of the newcomers. Fanny (Austin Stanton) strays into the far meadow where she is enraptured by visions of angels. Young Izzy (Jessica Hobbs-Pifer) sees divine lights. Polly (Nicole Bishop) receives the “gift” of art from Sister Anne, the American Shakers’ deceased founding mother.
Yet to Hannah all of this is just so much shirking and pride. She chastises Sister Phoebe (Freda Gowling) for not keeping the girls at their chores. (You will never get to be an eldress this way, she warns.) An unspoken mutiny spreads. When Polly gives melancholic Jane (Marcy Hoffman) one of her drawings, Jane is transformed by visions of seeing her dead children in heaven.
Hannah seems to give in. Together with the older Sisters, Rachel (Norma Kider) and Betsy (Sarah Labov), she marches the entire community to a mountain spring so everyone can have visions of angels. But resourceful Hannah is not through yet.
Directed by Jane Jennings, the show is artfully produced. With its wall hooks and brooms, the set design (Carla Childs and Jennings) evokes the wonderfully spare eloquence of the old meeting houses. Scene changes are quick and graceful with the inventive use of wooden benches together with light design (Nancy Frick and Jennings).
The play is also a sort of musical. Sister Peggy (Jillian Bosmann) is in fine voice as she leads the women through a score of Shaker hymns and dances. (As an encore the audience is invited to join in singing the well known Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.”)
The exotic world of “As It Is” no longer exists. As an active village, Pleasant Hill closed down in 1927 and is now a museum. The society’s insistence on celibacy helped seal its doom. Speaking in tongues is still with us, but the Shakers’ pacifism and communalism are long gone.
At the same time, the play feels modern. You always see young people picking up on the traditional beliefs of their inherited world and applying them in passionate new directions. At one point Hannah observes that the visions of the young girls could not possibly be true because the community elders would have seen them as well. That sounds familiar indeed.
Old Academy Players is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane in East Falls. “As It Is In Heaven” will run through Nov. 23. Reservations available at 215-843-1109. More information at www.oldacademyplayers.org.