Given the major role evangelical Christians and their biblically oriented agenda played in the recent election, the world premiere of Jim Lillie’s “Hearts to God” gives timely pause to consider the history of religious fervor in the United States and its influence on our society.
Part cultural history, part myth, part personal journey, suffused with a cappella renditions of traditional folk melodies and gospel tunes, and punctuated with fervent, stomping dances, the play covers the rise and fall of the Shaker movement in America through the eyes of Sister Mildred, a lifelong practitioner.
Left with her sister Marie, as young teenagers, at one of the sect’s communities in Massachusetts, Mildred is caught between her fascination with the strange but compelling practices of the group, and her sister’s skepticism and later urgings to join her and her husband at their farm.
Despite a rapturous performance by local actress Jenny MacDonald, Mildred’s personal conflicts are diluted by her dual role as narrator and character, blurring the distinction between her own issues and those of the group. This tack is reinforced by the pacing and staging of the play, which insufficiently separates and transitions Mildred’s anxious musings from the whirlwind of group discussions.
Nevertheless, MacDonald’s work, along with that of a fine ensemble, infuses the production with a strong sense of the purity of heart and primacy of faith that have allowed the celibate Shakers to endure, however tenuously, for more than 300 years via adoption and conversion.
With gentle, patient nurturing, Margaret Amateis Casart shapes a loving portrait of Sister Harriet, one of the elders responsible for overseeing Mildred’s spiritual development. Kristina Denise Pitt’s Marie is a concerned and radiant big sister. Stephen R. Kramer is a measured and devout Elder Henry while Tad Baierlein makes an ecstatic and thoughtful Isaac.
Their earnestness notwithstanding, we watch helplessly as the Shakers’ simple, heartfelt lifestyle disappears. The group discusses measures to reinvigorate the community, but the combination of strict and often arbitrary rules, celibacy, the ascendancy of state-run orphanages that supplant their own program and lack of interest in personal gain, severely diminish their numbers (from 58 communities in 1874 to one today).
The production’s effort to capture the essence of the movement is notable for its thoroughness: Authentic straight-backed chairs and accessories are sprinkled about the stage; the Shaker songs that originally inspired the script are well-represented and poignantly rendered.
The language, too, is genuine and rhythmic, save for occasional moments when it grows didactic around questions of beliefs and practices.
Even the principal difficulty of the production — the blurring of Mildred’s issues with those of the group — reflects the gestalt that naturally occurs in the psyches of those embedded in such like-minded communities.
As history’s relentless march is brought home by regular, matter-of-fact announcements from an offstage voice, we feel the Shakers’ sense of loss as their way of life and their cultural contributions — elegant, well-designed inventions, from single-piece wooden clothespins to flat brooms to circular saws — are lost in the shuffle.
When their escalating internal squabbles fail to produce a solution, and Mildred herself chooses to leave, the demise of the symbiotic relationship between her and the colony leaves us with a wistful, bittersweet catharsis, and a wishful longing for an individual and a movement that sought religious conversion through example, not force and deceit.