As It is in Heaven
nytheatre.com review by Robin Rothstein
May 20, 2011
By the time this review is posted the world may have already ended, which would be a shame because theatre-goers would then not have the opportunity to see the ten-year anniversary revival of the rapturous As It Is In Heaven, Arlene Hutton’s rumination on the nature of God, goodness, and grace.
Set in 1837, As It Is In Heaven concerns a Shaker community in Kentucky and the various ways in which the members of this religious collective respond when several newcomers claim to have seen and been influenced by angels. Per the program notes, the play takes place during a spiritual revival when “Shakers throughout the eastern United States…were moved by a dream state or ecstatic possession, and there was a flourishing of art. The works were considered spiritual bequests, not individual creations…” The Shakers, still in existence today, though the following is very much diminished, are completely about community and look towards achieving heaven on Earth by finding pleasure in daily work. The Shakers subscribe to the notion that the individual ego must be submerged into the group, so when the newcomers speak of witnessing angels, and being under the angels’ influence, ultimately uncovering artistic talents within themselves, a mix of jealousy, fear, and wonderment begins to emerge among the others. Most especially threatened is the head of the community, Eldress Hannah, who is unwilling to believe that the visions of these young women are true without reasonable proof.
The premise of As It Is In Heaven may sound as though it would be difficult to relate to, but, in fact, it is the distinctiveness of the subject matter and the details inherent in the storytelling and the characters that make this play so engrossing, and, at times, even quite humorous. Besides being a window on a fascinating historical topic, the play presents familiar human conflicts and philosophical meditations on faith, reason, and creativity in a compelling and unexpectedly accessible way.
Each actor performs her role so effectively in this ensemble that it is difficult to single out one person over another. That said, Margot Avery portrays Eldress Hannah with a well-measured blend of asperity, beneficence, and discomposure. Also convincing is Annie McGovern as Sister Jane, who has sought refuge with the Shaker community after losing four children, yet is deeply conflicted about this environment, which provides safety and security, but forbids individual expression.
Hutton’s elegant writing works on a variety of levels. Her seemingly superficial dialogue vibrates with deeper implications, exposing the true heart of her characters, and, while linear overall, she has uniquely structured the play as a cohesive theatrical patchwork of straightforward scenes, direct address, and transitions punctuated by rousing hymns performed by the ensemble. One character transformation near the end of the play feels as though it could do with a more gradual, organic shift, but this is a minor quibble.
A talented creative team provides terrific support to make this a crisp and classy production. Ludovica Villar-Hauser’s direction is exquisite and well paced, and her imaginative staging of this ensemble of nine is especially impressive given the small playing area. Sets, lights, and costumes are also first rate and compliment each other well. Joshua Scherr’s simple yet sophisticated lighting design provides mood and often feels like a character in itself. A mystical halo that at times surrounds the stage serves as a reminder of the goodness and heavenly perfection to which the community aspires. Set designer Joshua Wunderlich creates just the right austere atmosphere with simply constructed wooden benches. A uniform line of pegs jutting inward from the walls surrounding the perimeter of the stage seems to symbolize the sense of confinement within, and two identical wooden chairs hanging upside-down on the rear wall suggest you have entered a world where things are familiar, but not quite right, as in a dream. Shelley Norton’s and Veneda Truesdale’s muted pastel colored dresses and uniformly crisp white bonnets have an appropriate period feel and further articulate the Shaker-embraced idea of the community over the individual.
3Graces Theater Co. is the producer of As It Is In Heaven and has done an outstanding job assembling a group of artists that work together seamlessly for the good of the whole, while leaving room for the creative talents of each individual to shine through. Whether or not these individual talents are gifts from angels, they are certainly, without a doubt, a gift to all of us.