As presented by Big Bawl Baby Productions, Arlene Hutton's dramatization of Shaker society, As It Is in Heaven, islike the Shakers themselvesa no-frills affair.
For the uninitiated, the Shakers were a sect of Quakers who immigrated to the New World in the 18th century seeking religious freedom. Though their handcrafted wooden furniture has become very trendy in recent years, the Shakers were anything but trendy. Devotion to peace, love and equality were Shaker staples, along with a commitment to hard work and personal denial (including celibacy). Behavior considered even remotely prideful was a serious offense, and full membership within the group required the signing of a covenant. Meanwhile, their religious practices, including communion with spirits, unison a cappella singing (the famous song "Simple Gifts" is a Shaker hymn) and frenzied movements earned them the epithet "shaking devils" among suspicious neighbors.
On an almost bare stage, Neal Ashmun directs nine actresses through a slice-of-life profile of a Shaker community in Kentucky in 1838. Ashmun elicits good performances from his cast. It's too bad that Act 1, which starts off agreeably enough, struggles mightily to keep the audience engaged. This piece is more about character study than it is about plot, and talkiness bogs things down in spite of the ladies' best efforts to keep the action going apace.
Fortunately, Act 2 is much better. Not only is there some real drama (when the younger Shaker girls are attacked by locals), but more serious personal issues come to the fore, providing the actresses a second chance to make their characterizations count. Events culminate in a riveting display of the infamous, wildly frenetic Shaker dancing.
The cast is diverse, spanning a wide age range, and some of Nashville's best community theater veterans are on hand, supported by gifted newcomers. A tribute to the Shaker ethos, this is very much an ensemble production, and while each actress has shining moments, not a one can be considered the star. Hence we are moved as much by Anne Tonelson's portrayal of the stern "eldress" Hannah as we are by Hillsboro High School freshman Skylar Bee's notably affecting performance as the youngest Shaker, Izzy. Linda Speir, as Phebe, offers some formidable resistance to Hannah's authority, while Jennifer Richmond and Emma Rye deliver poised and sensitive readings as Polly and Fanny, girls hardly out of their teens. Richmond is especially good in her role as a former prostitute in a "fancy house" who has sought refuge with the Shakers. She also has a lovely singing voice, which stands out in the atmospheric musical passages, under the solid direction of Mark Horwitz.
Karen Bernard and Cherie Frensley handle the costumes, which provide a marvelous and welcome sense of authenticity to the proceedings, especially since the stage is devoid of set pieces, save for eight quietly attractive Shaker benches.
By evening's end, the doldrums of Act 1mostly the fault of Hutton's static writingare all but forgotten, and this flawed production emerges as an entertaining, if somewhat demanding, lesson in early American, religious and feminist history.
As It Is in Heaven plays through March 27 at Religious Science of Nashville, 6705 Charlotte Pike.
In last week's review of Tennessee Repertory Theatre's recent production of The Diary of Anne Frank, I questioned the dramatic effect of designer Gary Hoff's impressive re-creation of the annex of rooms in which the Frank family lived while hiding in Amsterdam during World War II. The review, which referred to the annex as an attic, neglected to mention that the set benefited from Hoff's rigorous research into the historical locale and represented a generally accurate reconstruction of the parameters of the Frank living quarters.
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