The Shakers were a utopian, egalitarian religious group, originally an offshoot of the Quaker community in eighteenth-century England, whose adherents dedicated themselves to God by separating themselves from the world and giving up all worldly pleasures -- including sex. Shakerism was brought to the United States by a young woman called Ann Lee. Lee had been married to a blacksmith in Manchester and had four children with him; all of these children died. It's hard not to feel a huge grief behind her insistence that procreation was a sin.
Shaker communities flourished for a while in the new world, though at the religion's height, it boasted only a few thousand members. Shakers set up self-sustaining communities and were known for the simplicity of their lifestyle ("Put your hands to work and your hearts to God") and the elegant spareness of their buildings, furniture and craftwork. They were also known for ecstatic singing, dancing and shouting, visions, faith healing and glossolalia.
Playwright Jim Lillie must have been fascinated with this odd corner of religious history, but whatever caught his imagination isn't evident in this production of Hearts to God at Germinal Stage. The play's main character is Sister Mildred, based on a real devotee who collected Shaker hymns and songs. In a monologue interspersed with brief scenes, Sister Mildred describes her life: how she and her sister were sent to a Shaker farm in their teens; how her sister eventually left, married and had children. After a mild crisis of faith, Mildred decided to stay on. Farm chores, worship, a falling away of the faithful and the death of a beloved mentor make up the rest of the plot. Because the Shakers had no children, the community could only survive through recruitment -- something rendered difficult by their reclusiveness and ascetic lifestyle.
Periodically, a neutral male voice recounts events in the outside world: rumors, inventions, wars. This voice's timeline is out of sync with that of Sister Mildred -- the anonymous speaker has reached the early twentieth century while she's still in the nineteenth, for instance -- and this is a little disorienting. I'm also not sure what it adds. The two worlds never intersect, nor does one seem to comment on the other or to provide context, except in the most general way.
There's no feeling of forward movement, no real conflict, no sense that we're dealing with flesh-and-blood people who endure envy, love, frustration, grief or fear. The language is cleansed of eccentricity or specificity and takes a sort of generic religious tone: "The air is filled with laughter"; "Songs of praise echoed like thunder across the fields and skies." This feels less like drama than an encyclopedia entry on Shaker life.
The songs are nice, but even when the cast works itself into a religious frenzy and, actor by actor, falls on the floor, the proceedings still seem rather polite and contained. Yet it must have been in these outpourings and visions that the congregants' creative and procreative urges found their vent. Or was there a poetry in their inner musings that the script never reveals? Because otherwise, what sad, pinched lives these people led.
Playing Mildred, Jenny MacDonald tilts her head and her eyes shine; as the insipid lines unspool, you feel as if you've been cornered for a long, long time by someone gently but annoyingly insane. The acting of the other ensemble members -- Margaret Amateis Casart, Kristina Denise Pitt, Stephen R. Kramer, Tad Baierlein -- is low-key.
Perhaps Lillie and director Ed Baierlein wanted to reflect in their work the Shakers' own simplicity and the shapeliness of their artifacts. But the functionality of those artifacts -- the apple peeler, the washing machine, the flat broom, the circular saw -- was a key part of their beauty. And what this play lacks is elementary craft.
"'Tis a gift to be simple," sang the Shakers -- but I'll take the far more generous and full-blooded vision of Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore:
Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.
You ever pour for me the fresh draught of Your wine of various colors and fragrance, filling this earthen vessel to the brim.
My world will light its hundred different lamps with Your flame and place them before the altar of Your temple.
No, I will never shut the doors of my senses. The delights of sight and hearing and touch will bear Your delight.
Yes, all my illusions will burn into illumination of joy, and all my desires ripen into fruits of love.
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