'As It Is in Heaven' Presents Haunting Visions at Live Oak Theatre

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Nowadays, Shakers are famous for their barns and furniture. Back at the peak of the religious movement, Shakers were known for barns, furniture, the odd policy of universal celibacy and fervent religious experiences, often accompanied by visions and, naturally, shaking.

Arlene Hutton's play "As It Is in Heaven" is set in 1838 in the semi-utopian, restrictive community of a small Kentucky Shaker village. When a few of the younger girls, newcomers to the community, begin to experience visions of angels, the balance of power is disrupted. The girls also claim to receive "gifts" from heaven and from the Shakers' spiritual founder, Mother Ann Lee--gifts which they express in the form of song, dance or drawings. The elders of the community are largely unconvinced of these "gifts," and set out to interrogate the girls and set things straight.

The Actors Ensemble of Berkeley takes on this work whole-heartedly with a cast of nine women and a set as elemental as the life led by the people the play portrays: A few wooden benches, a beautifully painted pastoral backdrop and a couple of woven baskets are all that adorn the stage. Jeremy Cole's likewise simple direction is carefully--even beautifully--done. All nine women remain on stage for a majority of the production, seated and stitching in the background even when not involved in a scene. But in such a bare-boned play, it all ultimately comes down to the talent and energy of the cast. And these women have energy enough, although it is a bit of a shame that what are supposed to be Kentucky accents often drift out of authenticity and into the hokey mode of mock-western, detracting a bit from the serious tenor of the production.

While the production centers on the politics within the Shaker community, it also emphasized on the dangers facing young women outside of the community. The strongest performances come from these younger members: Sister Polly (Jessica Price) is a former a prostitute who has sought refuge in the community. Sister Fanny joined the community for the promise of a daily meal and to avoid her abusive family. For Sister Izzy (Jillian Jetton), who was dropped of by her father as a young child, the community is the only home she has ever known. Jetton's Izzy is delightfully innocent, and her eyes well up with a very real sort of wonder when describing her angelic vision. Some of the performances are more sporadic and effusive, but this might be expected from a play involving convulse religious experiences.

Even so, Hutton's script is powerful in its own right--"As It Is in Heaven" is an intensely emotional play and a good choice for AEB. And the musical arrangement is fantastic: The sometimes militant, sometimes haunting a cappella performances of old Shaker ritual songs reverberate with an echo of a time gone by. It helps that the cast as whole has some fairly impressive pipes.

This production is very much "community theater." And some people may cringe at that word "community," especially when placed next to the word "theater." But there is something about the "community theater" treatment that is eerily fitting for this production about a community simultaneously coming together and falling apart. "As It Is in Heaven" is a powerful work begs the very existential question: At what point are personal feelings or religious experiences considered real or valid or meaningful? The AEB production seems to be aware of this question and its particularly fascinating implications when considered in the context of theater--where what is valid or meaningful is never necessarily real.


Arielle Little is the lead theater critic. Contact her at [email protected]



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