‘Pillars’ is a towering production in Orleans

By Ellen Petry Whalen, Cape Codder

With the country just coming out of a heated election period, Elements Theatre Company’s choice of Ibsen’s thought-provoking “Pillars of the Community” is very apropos, as it examines individual and societal political motivations. Specifically, the superbly executed and weighty drama takes a frank look at a man who craves “power” and “influence” above all else, all the while wrapped in a convincing “sham of responsibility,” that his community is more than willing to believe.

Norwegian Playwright Henrik Ibsen is considered the father of modern theater. He believed the idealized approach to drama, common in the 1800s, did not mirror the true messiness of life, where morals are sometimes compromised, if not far worse.

Set in a small, isolated Norwegian seaport in the 1870s, the short-tempered industrialist Karsten Bernick (Chris Kanaga) believes he has it all: the respect of his town and all of its trappings, a doting and submissive wife (Rachel McKendree), a loving and high-spirited son (Lily Schuman), a magnificent home and the appearance of high moral standards. He and his community are “standing on a threshold of a new age,” and are caught between the old ways of “convention and tradition” and the industrial revolution, where principles and people are sometimes disposable. Karsten’s well-orchestrated life, built on lies, is shaken when his past returns to confront him. During a “youthful indiscretion,” Karsten had an affair with a married actress; having nothing to lose, his friend and future wife’s brother, Johan (Peter Haig), took the fall from grace for him and fled to America, with his outspoken, half-sister Lona (Sister Danielle Dwyer). After fifteen quiet years, Johan and Lona come for a surprise visit and Karsten is convinced they want revenge. Even with all of the gossip and the town’s scorn, Johan is fine with the sacrifice he made for Karsten, until he falls in love with the dishonored actress’ daughter Dina (Stephanie Haig) and demands Karsten tell the truth to restore his honor. As a pillar of the community, how can Karsten tell the truth and let the town down, just for the sake of one man’s reputation?

Sr. Dwyer directs this impeccable and challenging production. The tight theater troupe spent a month in Chicago preparing for the play; in turn, the acting is engaging and meticulous with subtle nuances and powerful emotions, drawing the audience into the intimate scandal. The authentic costume designs by Gail Gibson and Sharon Tingley are abundant and eye-catching, with each scene change. Known for their impressive sets, Elements has gone above and beyond this time. Reaching over 30 feet high, just right of center stage, a lone wooden pillar, supports the breath-taking set that has elegant, long, curving hallways symbolically hiding secrets, just out of the audience’s view, along with an impressive curved staircase leading to a wrought-iron balcony, worthy of the stately home.