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Allison Williams (front) plays “Fanny,” a woman in the grip of spiritual ecstasy, in Elite Theatre Company’s As It Is in Heaven.

The simple life gets complicated

Elite Theatre captures a Shaker community in turmoil

By Jenny Lower 08/18/2011

Religion gets a bad rap these days, with muckraking scandals provoking contempt of institutions and scorn for the faithful. For those of us raised as true believers, the world inevitably seems to settle into lines more complex, more blurred than anything our upbringings prepared us for.

It is reassuring, therefore, to witness a world not yet beset by similar conflicts. Elite Theatre Company’s production of Arlene Hutton’s As It Is in Heaven, under the direction of Tom Eubanks, illuminates a Shaker community where “plain and simple” is the creed, where virtue is a given, where women live their lives in companionable celibacy by principles as straight and sturdy as the lines of a well-made chair.

That is, until a newcomer troubles the community with her ecstatic visions. But while the play retreads familiar, contemporary themes of faith, doubt and hypocrisy, it never strays into aggressive confrontation. This beautiful production and its outstanding cast reveal with pragmatism, compassion and gentle humor a distinctive chapter in American religious history and the very human concerns that undergirded it.

Two generations after its founding by Mother Ann Lee, the community at Pleasant Hill, Ky., has settled into a quiet pattern of work, worship and more work. Life here is better than out there — food is plentiful, if bland, and all have shoes on their feet. Under the guidance of Eldress Hannah (Shirley Raun), even minor transgressions like scolding the chickens are confessed and forgiven.

But all that changes when Fanny (Alison Vance, double-cast with Allison Williams), a recent arrival suspected by some of being a “winter Shaker” — the rough equivalent of a fairweather friend — starts seeing angels in the meadow. Soon her visions are shared by Izzy (Julia Wilson), a sweet-tempered simpleton who has lived with the Shakers since age 3, and Polly (Heather Linkletter), a former working girl who declares, “It’s natural to lie with a man.” As Hannah feels her hold on the community slipping, she launches an investigation into the visions.

It’s hard at times to ignore the parallels to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, but As It Is in Heaven mostly avoids a witch hunt. Fanny is no Abigail Williams, accusing her neighbors of consorting with the devil. Though the play never resolves whether the visions are “real,” it’s clear Fanny believes they are.

She is more like a Hester Prynne, the fallen heroine of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, with her intelligence, determination and passion. Vance’s height serves to distinguish her onstage: In showdowns with Raun, she literally towers over her, a physical as well as spiritual threat. Beth Glasner’s costume design emphasizes her difference further: Fanny wears a deep maroon dress amid demure blacks and grays, and even loses her white bonnet early in the second act.

Raun does a marvelous job bringing a nuanced portrayal of Hannah to life. In her conflict with Fanny we see both a generational divide and the tension between a desire for conformity and the natural human instinct for individuality.

Whatever the spiritual origins of Fanny’s visions, their psychological role cannot be denied. Among the Shakers, all talents, abilities and natural desires must be channeled into usefulness. Every whim must be justified and given spiritual weight to have legitimacy, so that even an urge to twirl becomes “a spinning gift.” In this environment, it’s not difficult to see how a craving for psychic release and personhood could lead to visions.

Hutton’s script acknowledges these realities in a lovely resolution that acknowledges the possibility of multiple truths. Nowhere does the gradual lessening of the community’s strictures play out more eloquently than through the singing, easily the best reason to see this play. The ensemble’s voices blend exquisitely in a series of a capella hymns — but never in harmony, for plain and simple is best. Until the day when Eldress Hannah leads them all to sing in parts.

Change can be beautiful.   

As It Is in Heaven, Aug. 12 to Sept. 18, Petit Playhouse, 730 S. B St., Oxnard. For more information, visit www.elitetheatre.org.

lower.jenny@gmail.com

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