Clean, moral, and pure. Three words that perfectly sum up the fabric of the community. Strawdog Theatre's Pillars of the Community opens on a meeting of the “Society for Lacerated Moralities,” a
discussion group that reinforces traditional, puritan beliefs while admonishing the moral decay of the outside world. The female congregation sews away while being lectured by Rorlund, the town's wanna-be pastor, regarding a book on the clearly defined gender roles of society.
It does not take long for the paradigm to unravel, however, when estranged family members and lucrative business opportunities come to visit the Norwegian sea town. Strawdog's production will draw you in with its impressive world building and solid performances, but might leave you unsatisfied when the show concludes.
The story follows the troubles of the Bernicks, a family of well-to-do social influencers renowned for their savvy trade enterprises and unflappable morals. They are a titular pillar of the community, having substantial stakes in the town’s infrastructure and serving as vanguards against the moral corruptions of the newly-founded United States. The Bernicks spearhead a business deal for a railroad to originate from their town to a nearby resource valley rich in resources. However, this deal comes into jeopardy with the return of estranged family members from America who threaten to expose the lie on which the entire Bernick name is built.
While the plot may sound thrilling, the production has its problems with pacing. Sitting at a run time of two and a half hours, it is a definite slow burn. There is a lot of backstory to explore: the seven to eight main characters, their pasts, their relationships to one another, and the sentiments of the townspeople are explained in plot heavy exposition dumps early in the play by characters who are rarely seen again. This can make tracking the motivations of each character difficult for anyone not familiar with the story.
However, once the plot and its characters get going, the production becomes captivating. Pillars of the Community is rife with strong metaphors and subtle elements that underpin just how morally bankrupt the Bernick name is. As the truth comes out, the real intentions of the Bernick house are laid bare in a delicious web of contradictions and subterfuge. The plot becomes a well-paced downward spiral which continually pushes the envelope on how far someone will go to protect a fifteen year lie. It’s highly riveting - once it gets going.
The cast has more than enough talent to deliver these powerful scenes. The range of the actors makes each scene feel dynamic and nuanced enough to feel the depth of their struggles. Each interaction feels natural and fluid, carrying the audience through the twists and turns the story makes. It is clear that the actors put in the hours to polish these dialogues until they were perfect.
It is no fault of the cast, though, that the ending doesn’t wrap up in a completely satisfying way. The play is an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Pillars of Society, a largely under-performed work released before his more influential A Doll's House. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, it should be known that the primary criticism of this work is in the way it chooses to conclude the downward spiral seen up until that point.
While it overstays its welcome a bit, the effort and talent of Strawdog Theatre are well-worth seeing. The world building and immersion of this production are astounding thanks to powerful acting and clever stage design. Despite its issues with pacing and a lackluster ending, Pillars of the Community draws the audience in with its strong cast, interesting character arcs, and powerful thematic presence.
Review by Ryan Moore
PIllars of the Community continues at Strawdog Theatre through March 3. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreinChicago's Review Round-Up.