Homecoming not always joyful in ‘Pillars’

By Kate Shea Kennon, Cape Cod Times

‘Tis the season for complicated family relationships on display, and Henrik Ibsen’s Bernick family in the “Pillars of the Community” is no different from yours or mine, except perhaps that the patriarch is a prototypical capitalist monster.

The Bernicks consist of difficult stepsisters and black sheep brothers, cousins and ex-beaus, nosy neighbors and judgmental in-laws, all with secrets that threaten to disrupt celebrations. Sound familiar?

In the Elements Theatre Company’s ambitious take on Ibsen’s sweeping play, Karsten Bernick, head of house and town, faces a test of character, providing 19th century dramatic narrative and at the same time managing to be applicable to contemporary headlines.

“Pillars” does not have the impact of Ibsen’s later masterpieces (the plot is too neatly tied up) but the timeless relevancy of Ibsen’s themes – do current good works alleviate past sins, for example – make the play worthy of dusting off and can be used as ammunition for anyone who has a strong opinion on the Lance Armstrong situation.

Keeping the many characters in “Pillars of the Community” straight can be a challenge to an audience member who isn’t familiar with this rarely produced play.

Many characters serve little more than to personify the rigid moral fiber of the Bernicks’ Norway town, but the production does a great job of highlighting the humor in a mob mentality, and there are some standouts in the diligent cast.

Chris Kanaga as Karsten Bernick navigates convincingly between hubris and vulnerability: “One anxious moment, one stray word,” and he may lose everything.

At his side, his wife Betty, played by Rachel McKendree in a rather thankless role, is consigned to little more than reacting to blasts from the past by the return of her brother (Peter Haig).

Also returning to “lift the veil” from a murky past is Karsten’s past love, Lona Hessel, played by director Danielle Dwyer. Dwyer presents Lona as one of Ibsen’s paradigmatic feminists and rightly so: She easily handles the snappy dialogue and delivers the “fresh air” as promised, however the character verges on the self aware and congratulatory to the extent that she seems to have arrived not from America but from another play.

Other distinctive performances include Kate Shannon as Marta Bernick, Karsten’s sister who somehow manages to stand on “terra firma” in her independence from her family, and Brad Lussier who is both the repressed schoolmaster, Mr. Rorlund, and Aune the shipyard foreman and pre-union organizer.

Finally, another star of the show is the set. With a design that wouldn’t be out of place on Broadway, Hans Spatzeck-Olsen, Karlene Albro and Jennifer Lynch have created the Huset Bernick, a wonder, complete with balcony for Karsten to look down on his family and friends both literally and figuratively until he is forced to come back to Earth.