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AS THE MERCURY climbs into the nineties and the percentage of relative humidity follows closely behind, sunbathing quickly loses its charms. In both Boston and Cambridge, theaters offer wonderfully air-conditioned alternatives to Charles Bank Beach, and under some circumstances, even another showing of Shampoo at the Harvard Square will tempt the heat stricken. Luckily, for those who refuse to sacrifice quality for comfort, the Harvard Radcliffe, Summer Theater exists. Its current production of Henrik Ibsen's The Pillars of Society rapidly captivates and carries sweltering. Cantabrigians to where the heat arises from social pressure, and the sweat from fear.
Max Cantor's interpretation of Ibsen's two-act drama emphasizes the playwright's humor, lightening up a script that tends toward the didactic. The Pillars of Society concerns one seemingly model family whose patriarch must admit to his actual deceit when the family's "black sheep" return home to clear their own names. The title refers to this false moral leader. Karsten Bernick, and his business cohorts, who pursue personal profits under the banner of working for the common good. They are supported by their equally hypocritical wives, members of an aid society for fallen women who are more dedicated to scandal gossip than to charity.
Ibsen attacks this Janus-faced samaritanism and also takes on the dilemmas of pride versus resignation, of profit and progress versus human interest. If played straight, this show could be rather sanctimonious. The speeches about lives based on lies are heavy handed even in Cantor's production, but the superb cast and quick pace play up Pillars farcical aspects. Props such as loud ties, when sacal scenery and an office suspended in mid air, beguile the audience.
Jamie Hanes, as Bernick portrays a wonderfully harried community leader. He is a real caught in a maze of his own design, constantly spouting maxims and proclaiming his own worth. Hanes transforms the genuinely nasty and selfish fellow into one worthy of sympathy by conveying poor Bernick's fear as his fabricated morality collapses.
HIS MORAL Foil appears in his jilted lover. Lona Hessel, who had run off to America with her half-brother Johan and now returns to settle affairs. Lona, fearless and true, shakes Bernicks settled world and brings him back to life by destroying his lie-based success. Nina Bernstein, one of the few bright points in last spring's Mainstage production of Agamem non, brings energy and sensitivity to a role which could otherwise degenerate into the story of an honest, but plodding pioneer. Bernstein's Lona becomes the focal point of nearly every scene she appears in as she dances and gestures. Lona is the breath of fresh air needed by her old home town.
The rest of the cast uniformly sustains this high energy level Gregg Lachow, as Johan Toennesen, Lona's half-brother, and Paul Warner as Bernick's model son Olaf, balance admirably between humor and a straight interpretation. Lachow conveys the wounded dignity of Bernick's betrayed friend without slipping into melodrama.
Somewhat less successful. Alex Pearson seems a bit uncomfortable in his role as Dr. Roerlund, the schoolmaster in charge of the town's women. The control he has over the group calls for a bit of seduction, sexuality veiled by religion, or at least the polish of sophistication which could win these matrons and maids alike. None of this becomes evident until midway through the second act, and his hold on one of the town's more spirited females remains inexplicable.
SET DESIGNER Doug Fitch has worked the limited space in the Loeb's Experimental Theater to Pillars' advantage, with action occurring on all sides of the audience and in the aisle. His imaginative use of space never becomes unnecessarily gimmicky, a flaw which has marred many shows in the Ex and on the Mainstage as well. Too many undergraduate producers, either tempted by the title, "experimental," or seduced by the technical possibilities of the larger theater, strive for novelty at the expense of content.
In The Pillars of Society, however, ingenuity aids the entire production: One white tile and glass room evokes the sterility of the ladies aid society. The adjacent office's blue floor and low ceiling immediately creates a different space, although both "rooms" are quite small and are not separated by real barriers. In addition, Bernick's office adds a touch of humor. He reachs his desk by a ladder and descends by means of a fireman's pole--a constant reminder of levity which moderates several serious scenes, most notably one potentially awkward encounter between Bernick and his foreman Aune (Mark Driscoll).
These elements of design and interpretation combine to create a thoroughly successful performance. With very few rough spots. The Pillars of Society should give an audience relief from the city's heat, at least for one evening.
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