Strawdog Theatre’s Pillars of the Community Questions the Self-Interest of Leaders

The cast of Pillars of the Community. Photo by Clark Bender. Pillars of the Community, adapted by Samuel Adamson from Henrik Ibsen's 1877 work, The Pillars of Society, is one of Ibsen’s lesser performed works. According to scholars, Ibsen struggled to write this play, with its ending serving as a source of great criticism. Now in a production by Strawdog Theatre Company in their new home at 1802 W Berenice, it seems that this play by Ibsen has rightfully earned such judgments. While Pillars of the Community features many hallmarks of Ibsen’s classics, such as a man haunted by his past actions and thematic ruminations on acting for one’s self-gain or the betterment of society, its pat ending is far less satisfying than Ibsen’s other works as it lacks the tragic climax it builds up to. Pillars of the Community features a strong leading performance from John Henry Roberts as Karsten Bernick. Bernick’s good fortune as a shipbuilding businessman is put at risk when his wife’s brother returns from America. Johann Tonnesen's (Kroydell Galima) scandalous reputation has been steadily ratcheted up in his absence, aided by Bernick’s refusal to admit crucial facts concerning the true nature of Tonnesen’s departure. As Bernick, Roberts practically vibrates with restlessness and desperation, keying audiences in to how the demons of his past are plunging him deeper into his moral quandary. Roberts’ success as Bernick is in part due to his handling of Ibsen’s dense prose and heady ideas. Adamson renders Ibsen's language in a less-than-elucidating fashion, and many members of the large cast seemed to meet the play’s language with more trepidation than tenacity. The result is a collection of characters who run the gamut from fully realized (in Roberts’ case, as well as Allison Latta’s performance as Lona, Johann's half-sister) to forgettable, two-dimensional, or melodramatic. Director Elly Green’s production does feature a strong visual metaphor, executed beautifully by scenic designer John Wilson. Green has chosen to stage the play with the space configured with audience on three sides. Surrounding the audience are the walls of a creaking, wooden ship. John Kelly’s saturated lighting spills in through the cracks in the ship’s hull, with the ship serving as a constant reminder of the lies and successes Bernick has built his fortune on. Running two-and-a-half hours, Pillars of the Community is a dialogue-rich production heavy with big ideas and little action. Roberts’ performance notwithstanding, Pillars’ messaging about capitalism and the repercussions of leaders acting in their own self-interest gets bogged down by an ending that lacks the emotional payoff one typically expects from Ibsen. Pillars of the Community continues through March 3 with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm. Tickets are $35-$40.To purchase a subscription package to Strawdog’s 2017-18 season or to purchase tickets to Pillars of the Community, visit      
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Brent Eickhoff

Brent Eickhoff is a Chicago-based director, writer, and educator. Brent has worked with A Red Orchid Theatre, Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co., The Arc Theatre, The Public House Theatre, Something Marvelous, Whiskey Radio Hour, and The Burrowers. He is the Educational Coordinator for Silk Road Rising, and is a founder and co-artistic director of Blue Goose Theatre Ensemble. While Brent has worked with a variety of Chicago theatre artists, he doesn't let that get in the way of writing unbiased reviews of any production he covers.