Chicago Theatre Review
The Selfish Rich and Powerful
Pillars of the Community
Henrik Ibsen’s “The Pillars of Society,” written in 1877, adapted by Samuel Adamson, is interesting as a theatrical piece that reflects how Capitalism can become an all-consuming way of life, at the exclusion of the individual. It’s also the famous Norwegian playwright’s first dramatic success, produced just prior to the greatest hits that made him world famous: “A Doll’s House,” “Ghosts,” “An Enemy of the People,” “Hedda Gabler” and “The Master Builder.” The unique ending of this play is its most criticized element. Just as audiences fully realize how truly selfish and corrupt the powerfully affluent Karsten Bernick is, being guilty of attempted murder, he gets off unscathed. This is perhaps the only play of Ibsen’s that has a happy, if unrealistic, ending.
The wealthy, domineering business mogul of a small Norwegian coastal town, Karsten Bernick owns and manages the family’s shipbuilding business. Secretly he’s been buying up lots of land, on which to establish a railway that will connect his town to the main line of transportation. Some years earlier, before the Bernick family had become well off, Johan, the younger brother of Karsten’s wife, Betty, abruptly left for America. To save his own reputation, Karsten had intimated that Johan had stolen money from the family business and was also having an affair with a local actress.
In actuality, it was Karsten who was having the illicit affair with the actress and there was no family fortune, at that time. The Bernick family, in fact, was almost bankrupt. So Karsten married Betty for her money and soon became the wealthiest and most respected citizen. At one time, Karsten had been in love with Lona, a beautiful, strong woman, but he had ultimately left her in order to marry for money.
But Johan has returned from America with Lona, his half-sister. The rumors of Johan’s wrongdoing have never been disputed by Karsten, so the townsfolk greet Johan with disdain. However, the flames are really fueled when Johan meets and falls in love with Dina, the daughter of the late actress with whom Johan had been accused of having the affair fifteen years ago. Dina has been living as a charity case in the Bernick home. Johan confronts Karsten and demands that he set the record straight and confess to the town his innocence.
Karsten refuses, so Johan leaves for America to tie up loose ends, saying he’ll return, as soon as possible, to marry Dina. But meanwhile, Karsten demands that his shipyard will shoddily repair a schooner that’ll sail to America in the coming days. Karsten urges Johan to board that ship. He imagines a final end to his problems when the young man goes down with the schooner. But Karsten quickly changes his tune when he discovers, to his horror, that his young son, Olaf, has stowed away on the very same ship.
Directed with poetic energy by company member Elly Green, this newer version of Henrik Ibsen’s play sounds almost contemporary. John Wilson’s scenic design, all weathered wooden timbers and flooring, evokes the interior of a nineteenth century sailing ship, although it’s the main room of the Bernick mansion. It’s an imaginative design that constantly reminds theatergoers of the coastal town and its ties to the shipping trade. Uriel Gomez has created a beautiful array of costumes that capture the late 1800’s and bespeak the various social classes represented by these characters.
This entire cast is exemplary. The always brilliant Allison Latta is once again simply magnificent as Lona Hessel. Eloquent and eager, Ms. Latta portrays a commanding woman, a formidable sparring partner for Karsten Bernick. As Mr. Bernick, the talented John Henry Roberts, so memorable in “The Night Season,” “After Miss Julie” and “Welcome to Jesus,” is stunningly powerful. Sometimes giving in to histrionics, which in this small space can seem a little too loud, Mr. Roberts and Ms. Latta truly carry this production.
Other standouts include Kamille Dawkins, as the sweet, innocent Dina; Kroydell Galima, as a fervent, enthusiastic Johan; Robert Koon, is sympathetic as the overworked shipyard foreman, Aune; Michaela Petro makes a bitterly unpleasant gossipmonger, Mrs. Rummel; Gage Wallace, is strong as the ministerial schoolmaster, Mr. Rorlund; and young Casey Bond is a very realistic Olaf Bernick (alternating the role with Aaron Lamm).
This play, which at a two-and-a-half hour running time, feels a bit longwinded, is an opportunity to view one of Henrik Ibsen’s early, seldom-produced dramas. The new adaptation gives it a modern feel and this stellar cast makes this production immediate and moving. In today’s world, where the most selfish, wealthiest men are controlling everyone else in this country, with very little regard for anyone else’s welfare, this production speaks to 21st century audiences of a very familiar way of life.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 19-March 3 by Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-528-9696 or by going to www.strawdog.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.