Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
The cast of PILLARS OF THE COMMUNITY. Photo by Clark Bender.
By Bec Willett
Despite my love of A DOLL’S HO– USE and HEDDA GABLER, Henrik Ibsen’s PILLARS OF THE COMMUNITY is not a play I’d heard of before Strawdog’s current production. Delving into its background, I was struck by its development process. This is the first of Ibsen’s plays where, afraid he was not connecting with his contemporary audience, he took a leap to leave behind verse in favor of prose, his goal to make it “new and appropriate, to the present day in every respect.” Yet this was also a play with which he wrestled intensely for longer than any other, a hurdle he emerged from as the caliber of writer for which we now know him, and with a beautifully crafted play whose relevance reaches far beyond the years he might have expected.
Ibsen’s protagonist in this hard-won play is Karsten Bernick (John Henry Roberts) who seems to be a pillar of a small 19th Century Norwegian community. It is, however, a reputation based on his apparent innocence and ill-treatment in a scandal many years before for which he uses as a cloak for every vice and machination. After living in America for several years, those parties involved in the scandal and its cover-up have returned, burrowing into and breaking apart the foundation of his good name.
The first in their new space, the set of Strawdog’s almost-in-the-round production is the inside of a ship, although the play itself never takes place there. A nod to this society’s shaky moral ground, it’s unfortunate that it’s not a concept integrated beyond tenuous symbolism. Even so, the structure of John Wilson’s immersive and evocative design intimately situates the actors and the play they perform just feet away, driving home the issues of gender, power and capitalism that are frighteningly as relevant today as they were over 100 years ago.
While the play selection is relevant and the staging immersive, many of the key performances often tend to sit in simple choices and the emotional drama of the piece, without harnessing the language and letting it do its work. Where director Elly Green has created some striking stage pictures and movement to accommodate the untraditional set and heightened nature of the speech, many of the actors struggle to consistently motivate it, favoring a more casual realism that is caught up in needless pacing, pointing, and hands on hips. Thankfully, there are also performances and moments where the choices favor complexity and containment, particularly those of Michael Kingston as the bumbling Hilmar, Gage Wallace’s detailed physicality as the supercilious Rorlund, Priya Mohanty as dutiful Martha and Kamille Dawkins as young Dina – the latter two whose rare moments together are the highlights of the show.
While Strawdog’s PILLARS OF THE COMMUNITY would benefit from more connection and complex choices, just as he hoped at over a century ago, the story of Ibsen’s play remains more than appropriate to the present day.
PILLARS OF THE COMMUNITY runs through March 8 at Strawdog’s new home, 1802 W. Berenice. More info at strawdog.org.