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The spiritual life is cyclical, as Arlene Hutton demonstrates in her stunning play, As It Is In Heaven. Its themes are not only the rigidity which forms a carapace eventually about all belief systems, the frustrating gap between the eyes of innocence and the power of experience, and the validity of visions.
The Shaker Society, a Protestant monastic community, rebelled against the formality of the Church of England and sought to imitate the primitive Church. The sexes were segregated, practicing celibacy, pacifism and a community of goods. Their name came from the turning and shaking that for them were dances of religious ecstasy.
Hutton reflects what happens in many religions in her story of what happens to nine women in an 1838 Shaker commune in Kentucky.
Hannah, the eldress, in a fierce authoritative performance by Lori Berg, is appalled by the visions of angels proclaimed by the frail youngest newcomer, Fanny. Eventually all the sisters except Hannah declare they see angels, visions which war with the orderly pattern of work and prayer Hannah has spent a decade achieving.
Whenever the sisters feels "a gift" of laughter, ideas, whatever, they run off and follow it leaving the plough in the field or the churn in the butter. One can empathize with Hannah's frustration. The deft and unexpected ending develops Hannah's character to the end.
Hutton is no mere didactiscist. Hutton's gift for character is, as the sisters would say, a blessing. The women of assorted ages, backgrounds and talents, are bonded by their spiritual life and the support that enriches their sisterhood.
Although the cast is uniformly excellent, some actresses have more to work with than others and some make a meal out of a morsel.
Robin Knight brings a stunning immediacy to the passionate child-like Izzy and Barbara Kerr Condon projects the nourishing warmth associated with a cook who loves her work, as well as a beautifully-pitched singing voice.
There are strong performances from Susan Carol Davis as Phoebe, the deaconess who executes her turns with military precision and tart Deborah Lynn Meier as Polly, the only newcomer who has seen something of the world from working on her back at a brothel and the only one who stands up to authority in supporting Fanny's vision and Izzy's desperate yearning to stay with the sisters and not be sent home to her father. In Meier's hands, Polly struggles to control both her temper and her insight. Bonnie Bailey-Reed is a totally believable Jane, who had to follow her husband into the commune because all her babies died.
Staci Michelle Armao plays Fanny, the visionary, with passionate delicacy and what Hutton tells us about her life goes a long way towards explaining how she slips out of this world. Rebecca Hayes as deaconess Betsy and E. P. McKnight as Rachel create sensitive solid performances.
Director Marianne Savell bring out the humor, careful structure and dramatic build in Hutton's play to make this a historically viable and vividly theatrical experience. She utilizes Tim Farmer's simple set design of benches to turn them into trees, projecting effects as believable as Fanny's angels.
Far from least is the music, original Shaker songs stunningly directed by David O and choreographed by Brian Paul Mendoza. Their contributions are intrinsic elements in this unique and welcome production.
Last Train To Nibroc, also by Arlene Hutton
AS IT IS IN HEAVEN|
Playwright: Arlene Hutton
Director: Marianne Savell
Cast: Barbara Kerr Condon (Peggy), Lori Berg (Hannah), Susan Carol Davis (Phebe), Rebecca Hayes (Betsy), E. P. McKnight (Rachel), Robin Knight (Izzy), Staci Michelle Armao (Fanny), Deborah Lynn Meier (Polly), Bonnie Bailey-Reed (Jane).
Set Design: Tim Farmer
Lighting Design: Bill E. Kickbush
Costume Design: Carolyn Lancet
Sound Design: Geoff Green
Musical Direction: David O
Choreographed by Brian Paul Mendoza
Running Time: Two hours with one 10-minute intermission
Running Dates: February 21-May 18, 2003
Where: Actors Co-Op, The Crossley Theatre, 1760 North Gower Street, Hollywood, Ph: (323) 462-840
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on.April 13.
©Copyright 2003, Elyse Sommer
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