His cover-up of a past affair and financial crime threatens to demolish a politician’s established world. Although it sounds like our present day reality, PILLARS OF THE COMMUNITY is set in the 1800s. Samuel Adamson adapted Henrik Ibsen’s 1877 play about a leader whose enamored base feel that he can do no wrong. Fifteen years ago, Karsten (played by the noteworthy John Henry Roberts) let Johan (played by the earnest Kroydell Galima) take the heat for an affair. Since Johan was leaving for America, he was happy to help out his brother-in-law. After Johan leaves town, Karsten also lets the community believe Johan absconded with Karsten’s mom’s money. Following his long absence, Johan returns home to find he is a hated man.
The core story intrigues and haunts with its timeless messages of corrupt leadership. The play gets weighted down with Adamson’s decision to stay true to all Ibsen’s details. The play starts with Rorlund (played by Gage Wallace) reading to the docile women while they are sewing. The dry opening gives a sense of the puritanical existence of this community. The women seem dutiful to Wallace’s pontificating. The subdued meet-up is disturbed by a hilariously boisterous Michael Kingston (Hilmar). His news leads the ladies to scatter. Michaela Petro (Mrs. Rummel) then brings a newbie -and us- up to speed on the local gossip. Petro provides a complicated overview of the past scandals of so-and-so and the actress, his mother, the brother-in-law, the actress’ daughter, his sister turned guardian and the woman that punched him in the face. Although Petro is very entertaining in her conspiratorial hush-hush side bar, it’s a whole lot of whos-who. I spent the majority of the show trying to match up Petro’s rumors with the right person. The storytelling gets a bit Robert Altman-esque with a bounty of characters that aren’t all essential to the main tale.
Director Elly Green skillfully navigates us through a boatload of information. First, she literally sits us in a ship. Set Designer John Wilson creatively carves out a wooden vessel as the stage to place us in the shipping port. Next, she effectively uses the large space to assemble her large cast or showcase intimate conversations. While Green gathers her crowd scenes near the stern, she positions two person confrontations just feet away from the front row. This helps us connect to the emotional moment. An unraveling Roberts belittles a bewildered Nicole Bloomsmith (Betty). Wallace awkwardly pledges his secret devotion Kamille Dawkins (Dina). Later, Galima unabashedly woos Dawkins. The exchanges done in close vicinity tether us to individual stories within the sea of people. Distinguishing between the female characters is particularly challenging because they are intentionally playing submissive conformists. The exception is the colorful Allison Latta (Lona). Latta sails onto the stage with unapologetic spunk.
I really enjoyed PILLARS OF THE COMMUNITY. Although untangling the cast of characters and their relationship to each other proved tough, the story was relevant and timeless. Latta’s slap and exclamation at the end left me hopeful for the real world.
Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes an intermission
At Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice
Based on Henrik Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community
Adapted by Samuel Adamson
Directed by Elly Green
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm
Sundays at 4pm
Thru March 19th
Buy Tickets at www.strawdog.org.
Production photos by Clark Bender
For more information and reviews on Chicago theatre, visit Theater in Chicago.