Before a backdrop painting of hills with a few houses and a road in the distance, nine Shaker women file out, greet the audience with a bright chorale and set about confessing their sins to each other: “I slept late last Thursday” ... “I was angry at the hens” ... “I was prideful of my new apron”—a lot of confessions of the tiniest peccadillos open As It Is in Heaven, Arlene Hutton’s play, at Actors Ensemble of Berkeley.
“Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow,” said Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, who emigrated from England to America just before the Revolutionary War.
As It Is in Heaven takes place over a half century later, at the end of the religious Great Revival in American society, when Shaker communities (this one in Kentucky) experienced the Era of Manifestations, and younger women were subject to visions and ecstatic behavior.
“I humbled myself to the spirit ... There is a devil in our midst, or the end of the world!” says Jennifer Rice as Sister Rachel in her testimony, while the elders interrogate everyone in the celibate community, debriefing the younger ones (Jessica Price, Jillian Jetton and Molly Holcomb as Sisters Polly, Izzy and Fanny), who maintain they have seen angels or were the bearers of gifts from Mother Ann in Heaven.
Lest it sound like a Shaker version of The Crucible or The Devils, As It Is in Heaven is leavened with song and dance—“Sing on and dance on/You followers of the Lamb”—with a “laughing gift”—and a simple, easy joie de vivre. The visions are not dark ones: the angels were “Gold, they were gold! And we heard music.” Much of the dialogue goes along with the work: quilting, snapping beans, drawing fruits and vegetables for jelly jars.
The play is a canny mix of approaches that reinforce ensemble work, and the cast—with clear, supportive direction from Jeremy Cole—works together very well, their disparate personalities as performers matching up with those of the community they’re playing.
Norman de Veyra’s set is appropriately Shaker simple, a few benches, a stool, some baskets. Alecks Rundell’s lighting and Elizabeth Van Buren’s costume design match it, with brighter clothing for the younger set, muted darks for the elders to the black of elder Sister Hannah (Ann Kendrick), brought to the colony years before to establish order and now intending to uphold it.
Jean Forsman is Sister Betsy; Peggy De Coursey, Sister Phebe; Alexis Lane Jensen (also, the musical director) played Sister Peggy; and Lisa Drostova, a much-missed former theater reviewer, portrayed mournful Sister Jane on the other side of the footlights. As It Is in Heaven is perfect for the fall and for Indian summer weather, crickets chirping outside the theater by Codornices Creek in Live Oak Park.
AS IT IS IN HEAVEN
Actors Ensemble of Berkeley
Fri.–Sat. 8 p.m.
through Nov. 19
Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave.