Elements company strives for authenticity in ‘Pillars’

By Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll, Cape Cod Times Pre-production Interview

When publicist Kate Shannon walked onto the set for “Pillars of the Community” last week, she felt like a few more steps down one of the “hallways” would actually lead her into bedrooms in another part of the house.

The set seemed that real, and it is a sense of reality that is driving much of this first production of a Henrik Ibsen play by Elements Theatre Company in Orleans. Realism was a genre that the company — which has previously produced Shakespeare, Chekhov and other work in its 20 years — hadn’t yet explored. Members went through a month of training with teachers in Chicago this summer, then here this fall, on Ibsen and his work, as well as stage combat and various aspects of acting.

The cast and crew want to make audiences feel that they’re almost a part of what is happening in a small Norway seafaring community in the late 19th century.

“The language has so much poetry and metaphor, but it’s people in a real-life setting having real-life conversations,” says actress Rachel McKendree. “You’re not watching a lesson but being invited into the lives of these characters.”

Of the Ibsen canon, Elements chose this lesser-known work, says Shannon, in part because the universal issues of the play — including keeping secrets, what is expected of a leader, and exploration of a man’s character — seemed so relevant to today’s audiences. This particular translation by Samuel Adamson, which premiered in 2005 at the National Theatre in London, also seemed less dry than some Ibsen adaptations, Shannon says, and better “able to communicate to today’s audiences what Ibsen is saying.”

McKendree plays Betty Bernick, wife of a man who has built his life and business on lies and misdeeds yet has hidden the reasons behind his success well and is an important man in the community. His world threatens to crumble, and he is tested when people who know the truth return to the area.

“Rippling through Ibsen’s text is the theme from Apollo’s Temple at Delphi — ‘Know Thyself,’” director Sister Danielle Dwyer says in a director’s note for the program. “It is with this perspective Ibsen pleads in his writing for honesty and equality in all relationships — providing a hope for a future without secrets or lies, no matter who you are in the community.”

McKendree has been particularly struck by this version’s rich exploration of not only Bernick, but all of the characters in the story. “You get a full picture of who everyone is,” she says. The translation “doesn’t sound so academic. It sounds like today.”

That authenticity has been continued, through research, into the floor-to-ceiling set of the Bernick home and to the period costumes (all handmade by six seamstresses), the women say. Those also help to tell the story, as the set has many corners and doorways, Shannon notes, to give the feel of many secrets. (If you want to see the set and how a team of 30 volunteers put it together, check out a time-lapse video on the company’s website at www.elementstheatre.org/now-playing.html.)

With the seaside community setting, Shannon believes Cape audiences in particular will relate to what happens in this small Norway town. And to give them even more insight, the company is putting background on Ibsen and the play on its website and will set up various informational displays in its Paraclete House lobby.