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Among the torments of living with a conscience is the struggle to ease the friction between the guiding principles by which we're ostensibly governed and the constant betrayal of those principles by those who govern. Realists who can absorb such gaping contradictions call this realpolitik and do very well in boardrooms, advertising agencies and places like the Department of Defense; idealists, however, rage at the hypocrisy like a bull charging a red cloth, and with just about as much effect.

Russell Banks famously pointed out that the history of the United States is the centuries-old attempt to reconcile our glorious Constitution (with its Bill of Rights and template for modern democracy) with our belligerence, starting with slavery, continuing through Manifest Destiny and finding us now in the middle of our new doctrine of perpetual pre-emptive war. Though we claimed to have embraced personal-property rights and the sanctity of national sovereignty — fundamental rules of order taken from John Locke and other British institutions — we neglected to ask any of the original property owners if we could borrow the Dakotas for a century or two, or the Philippines, or half of Mexico. We never even knocked. We simply broke down the door, pulled up a chair and made ourselves as much at home as kin just released from prison. That we often got away with it, like the Huns of an earlier epoch, led many to believe that God approved.

It's not surprising, then, as this country expanded west, to find so many religious sects that wanted to insulate themselves from the outside world and its realpolitik. Pacifist Christians like the Quakers, the Amish, the Molokans and the Shakers presumed that their God might have seen our quest to profit from the “liberation” of others in much the same skeptical light as the Crusades.

Taking a commune of Shaker women in 1838 Kentucky as the basis for her tender drama As It Is in Heaven, playwright Arlene Hutton studies how these people attempt to keep the demon hypocrisy at bay. Their self-imposed segregation from the greater society and from men is the most obvious manifestation of that effort. But corruption is a flinty imp. Take a shallow breath and he's in your lungs. Take a deep gulp, and he's in your soul.

Defying the Golden Rule of drama, Hutton creates a gallery of characters struggling not with guilt, but with innocence. Nobody here commits a crime or a sin for which — as though from a courtroom's back benches — we're invited to weigh the offense and, in so doing, learn something about ourselves. To the contrary, the leading player, an “Eldress” named Hannah (played with stoic dignity by Lori Berg), confronts the possibility that she's jealous of the young — but not jealous of anything so superficial or fleeting as their youth or their beauty. Rather, she's jealous of their “gift” of vision — evidently from God. Not only can one of them draw very well, on certain occasions and at a special place beyond the pasture, all of them (Staci Michelle Armao, Deborah Lynn Meier and Bonnie Bailey-Reed) see angels quite clearly.

The elders, however, have no such artistic gifts and see no such visions. Hannah's response is a bitter lecture to the young about pride, and on the importance of suppressing individuality for the benefit of the group. In the time it takes for a cloud to block the sun, Hutton dramatizes a distinction between a commune and communism. Hannah turns even nastier, righteously overseeing the expulsion of one forlorn girl before undergoing her own emotional collapse.

Marianne Savell's church-hall staging of a wonderful ensemble matches the play's fresh-scrubbed simplicity. Lacking a large drama with themes of apocalyptic vengeance, the production has the compensating quality of a rite, with a cappella hymns, some composed by David O., leading to a tone as gentle as a caress.

Where, in the striving to be pure, does one become a zealot? And at what point does that zeal become the hypocrisy we revile? These are questions that eternally confront enlightened people as the dark ages keep rolling by.

AS IT IS IN HEAVEN | By ARLENE HUTTON | At ACTORS CO-OP, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood | Through May 18

LA Weekly