We share our stories not only in our words, but in the way we carry ourselves and the way our hands move while engaged in our work. In A Shaker's Path, movement and gesture are the stars of the one-woman play, as they should be. Words simply follow the lead of the physical body. A graceful turn tells one story while a sudden spasm tells something else altogether. Walking with a bent back, the torso twisted, also bends and twists the sound of the voice.
Mother Ann Lee of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing (a.k.a. the Shaking Quakers or, simply, the Shakers) had much to say about the relationship between hands and work and idleness and sin.
Laura Rikard, who studied Commedia dell'Arte with Italian master Antonio Fava and devised theatre with Odin Teatret in Denmark after graduating from College of Charleston, is brilliant in the role of Mother Ann Lee precisely because of her mastery of physical acting. This is a tale that might seem somewhat dry in the pages of a religious studies text but comes utterly alive onstage, at least in Rikard's capable hands.
A Shaker's Path is a disturbing story, rife with the most unpleasant aspects of the 18th century — oppressive attitudes toward women, religious intolerance, and the indifference of those in power to the plight of the poor — but there is redemption in it as well.
It is far too easy, after the fact, to dismiss the choices and actions of others as strange or absurd. When we take a closer look, however, at the context in which these choices were made, judgment is not quite so easy. What is the appropriate response to brutality? What is the rational way to behave in a society that threatens to brand a woman on the cheek for expressing her beliefs in public?
Seen through the eyes of another, the ecstatic dance and discordant cries of Ann Lee contain a kind of liberation, an escape from the confines of an inhospitable time and a place. Her life was a series of daring escapes from prisons, both physical and mental.
Rikard carries us along with Ann Lee as she escapes the horrors of childhood, male leaders who threaten violence and imprisonment against any who dare question the social order, England for the promise of a new world in the fledgling New York, and eventually this world altogether.
However, when the lights dim, two questions linger when it comes to the tale of Lee: Did she ever really escape those trials? Do any of us really leave the past behind or do we just get better and better at putting on a good show?
The play is notable for its simplicity and superb craftsmanship. There is no excessive ornamentation or special effects because it needs none. The joinery is tight, the lines clean, and the materials of the finest quality.