Regional Reviews: St. Louis
As It Is in Heaven
Also see Richard's review of Caught
And this allows us to focus entirely on the earthly problem unfolding within Arlene Hutton's 85-minute play, which appeared Off-Broadway in 2001: a Shaker women's group (in rural Kentucky, in 1830) is pulled apart when two of its younger members report visions of angels and Heaven, out beyond their own sanctified grounds. Parenthetically, it turns out that both those visionaries have also been young victims of sexual abuse. In that regard, you might leap to the conclusion that As It Is in Heaven bears at least a passing resemblance to Arthur Miller's The Crucible. But you'd be way off the mark.
Instead, the struggle here is a new version of the age-old conflict between the law and the spirit, with the one-of-a-kind Amy Loui as the leader of this Christian sorority, and Patrice Foster and Amanda Wales as the two young Catherines of Sienna. On stage, Ms. Loui never obviously aspires to "theatrical greatness," but it almost always manages to track her down, one way or another. Ms. Foster and Ms. Wales are soft-spoken, luminous rebels as Fanny and Polly, and the sexual abuse in their characters' lives is never tied to their revelation of miraculous apparitions. Even when a third, similar abuse case among the pro-apparition splinter group is revealed, we are left to ponder any linkage on our own time.
The excitement over the visions of angels and light, and the music of the spheres, is just part of an air of distraction that affects the sisters, and Hannah (Ms. Loui) steps in again and again to get things back on track. Meanwhile, the atmosphere of the play is deeply, beautifully folksy: The women, in their self-abnegation, come to resemble little hand-made dolls with carved apple heads, their little wisps of hair peeking out from under plain scarves. They come and go in bright cheerful hymns, genuinely exulting in a kind of shared joy that scarcely seems to exist in this world. And all that awakens a kind of spiritual innocence in us too.
The tiny scale of the story, and the manner in which our own vision is narrowed down to the simple and human and humble, is delightful. The audience is stripped, like novitiates, of worldly things, and trained instead to look only to the soul, by the witnessing of an exercise in purification on stage. At the outset, Ms. Loui leads the sisters in their public confessions of very small matters indeed: forgetting to pray for others, letting the muffins burn, and on and on. And she, and other fine actresses like Laurie McConnell and Mary Schnitzler and Leslie Wobbe, construct a monkish world where simplicity is the highest form of freedom. Although, among those elders, Alicia Revé Like still manages to set her own contrarian tone. But the big climactic group scene is silently, spiritually horrifying, as the girls' vision is suddenly corrupted.
The real world intrudes in strange ways, like an obstacle course at a school for the blind: Jennelle Gilreath plays a troubled Shaker, a country wife haunted by a long string of infant mortalities, now harassed by an old bull at the colony's farm, charging at her like a case of symbolic sex abuse. And Christina Sittser glows on stage as one of the teenagers, ecstatically wishing to share the other girls' vision, but with her own startling confession to make, when the secular world threatens to ensnare her all over again.
Through March 31, 2018, at the black box theater at the south end of Fontbonne University (enter off of Big Bend Blvd.), St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.mustardseedtheatre.com.