Elements’ production of Pillars stands tall

Written by John Watters, Barnstable Patriot

Stories of evil family machinations are as old as Cain and Abel, and the return of the Prodigal Son has been told for many millenniums, so Henrik Ibsen wasn’t breaking any new ground when he wrote Pillars of the Community in 1877. But if you think a 19th century play might be a stodgy piece of antiquity, go see Elements Theatre Company’s production of Pillars to realize that today’s scriptwriters are really just reworking the storylines of the masters.

Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright, is considered the originator of modern theater. Often he wrote stories heavy with pathos and darkness, yet remarkably many of his plays retain a freshness and remarkable poignancy.

Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community is not done as much as some of his other famous pieces like Hedda Gabler, Peer Gynt or A Doll’s House. The play has always had an air of controversy over how it resolves the fate of its main character, a prosperous and ruthless businessman named Karsten Bernick who is ready to kill members of his own family to retain his prominent position in society.

Bernick is a powerful industrialist who offers his remote Norwegian coastal town a bright future by connecting it with a railway to the outside world. He’s not letting on that, in what would today be called “insider trading,” he has already bought up all of the fertile valley land along the railway’s path. He has hidden his shadowy past by besmirching the reputation of his family to serve his own greed and personal gain.

Once again the masterful cast of the Community of Jesus’s Elements Theatre present an impeccable product. Director Sr. Danielle Dwyer, along with her repertory troupe of regulars, grab hold of Ibsen’s heavy plot twists and never lose their grip. The acting is scalpel sharp, the timing exact; the show’s beautiful period costumes and striking set make for a show that could easily compete with any professional production.

Chris Kanaga plays Karsten Bernick with an evil undercurrent that is downright scary at times. Portraying his wife Betty, Rachel McKendree is superb as the woman who has always done her husband favors no matter how distasteful she finds them. In dual roles of a teacher and a shipyard foreman, Brad Lussier captures each character’s distinct differences, a mark of a very adept actor. The part of the exiled brother-in-law Johan Tonnesen, who has come back from America to reunite with his family, is played wonderfully by Peter Haig. Dwyer plays Lona a half-sister of Betty’s who has ventured to the American frontier with Johan. She is the catalyst in the effort to make Karsten repent his oily past.

The real star of the show is Stephanie Haig as Dina Dorf, a young girl living as a charity case of the Bernick family. She delivers a remarkable performance as she tries to decide whether to be true to her own feelings and escape her situation for an adventurous life in America or maintain her muted existence in Norway.

The set designed by Hans Spatzeck-Olsen, Karlene Albro, and Jennifer Lynch is perfectly appointed in a grand way. It could be the greatest acting canvas the company has enjoyed.

This is a splendid evening of entertainment that captures every element of theater.