"Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow."—
Finding Heaven on Earth is, arguably, the goal of every human. To shakers, the journey to a joyful life was found in a community rife with hard work and virtue. To them, constant, simple toil brought their people as close to Heaven as humanly possible, and Arlene Hutton's play As It Is in Heaven recreates that transcendence on the stage.
Before going into details about the Desert Rose Playhouse's production of As It Is in Heaven, it's helpful to know a few things about the Shakers. The Shakers were a religious sect started by Mother Ann Lee when she immigrated to America in 1774. The Shakers, so called for their physical reaction when connecting with God, took religion beyond the church and into their lifestyle. They lived segregated—men and women in separate homes, hallways and eating areas—though they considered all sexes (and races) as equal. Celibacy, hard work and vigilence to end all sinning were highly regarded virtues, acting as strong tenents of the Shaker community for nearly 200 years, though the lack of children ultimately contributed to its demise.
As It Is in Heaven looks at a Shaker family of nine women in Pleasant Hill, Ky., around 1830 to 1840. The “sisters,” as they call each other, spend every moment together, quilting, cooking, tending the garden and praying. As It Is in Heaven opens with the sisters joined in song before sitting reverently and taking turns confessing their sins, which include eating an extra helping of potatoes, cursing the chickens and not staying focused during chores. The women strive to live simple lives while working diligently for God, but the young girls have begun to see visions and neglect their duties, causing fear within the community that there may be a devil hiding among them.
The cast of As It Is in Heaven is a delight—the actors are warm and gentle even in their most aggressive moments. The performance is a welcoming, authentic community event, and if you don't know anyone in the cast, by the end of the performance you'll feel like you know them all. Mildred Cooper (Sister Peggy) shines with confident, bright vocals during the Shaker songs, and she shares a particularly great scene with Georgette Endicott (Sister Betsy) when they secretly sing in harmony, a musical embellishment frowned upon within the community. Endicott portrays Sister Betsy as sympathetic with just the right bite of toughness, and if the chemistry among the cast wasn’t so high, she could easily steal the show. Counter to Sister Betsy's caring is Sister Hannah's stark, rule-abiding elderess, played by Rose Provan. Provan exudes love for her sisters even while playing the stern leader, leaning more to the misguided rather then the power-hungry—a brilliant choice.
Director Georgia Athearn wrote in the playbill that she chose Hutton's script for its unadorned beauty and the fascination it generated within her about the Shakers' society. Athearn captures that aesthetic in the Desert Rose production with a smart use of props, costumes and staging. The best choice, perhaps, was the Shaker song transitions in and out of scenes, both showcasing the vocal talent within the cast and the Shakers’ musical heritage. Athearn also provides the audience with an information sheet about the Shakers, something everyone attending the show should pick up on the way into the intimate, 61-seat theater.
As It Is in Heaven is well-written, staying on the shorter spectrum (about an hour-and-a-half long) and remaining objective while highlighting a zealous religious group. There is no judgment placed on the Shakers. While As It Is in Heaven is about religious belief, it's not about one religion being better than another, just about what it means to believe, for better and for worse. Hutton injects some subtle, unforced humor that the Desert Rose cast superbly highlights. Georgia Athearn chose a beautiful play, and this production does it justice.