Bill Buell, David Chandler, Susan Heyward, Robert Hogan, Slate Holmgren, Felicity Jones, Irene Sofia Lucio
One of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s later, more symbolic plays, The Master Builder is currently being given a reverent, clear-headed production at Yale Repertory Theatre thanks to the direction of Evan Yionoulis and scenic design of Timothy Brown, both of whom bring an understanding of the playwright’s psychological intentions to the table without allowing their work to implode beneath the weight of Ibsen’s rather heady text.
The Master Builder revolves around the flagging career of architect Halvard Solness, whose status as preeminent architect of his district is threatened by what her perceives to be the threat of “the young.”
He’s in love with his assistant Ragnar’s fiancee, the pretty young Kaja, but finds himself estranged from his wife Aline. To top it all off, his relationships with both the women in his life are shattered by the arrival of the mysterious young Hilda Wangel, a girl he met ten years back at the christening of his last church tower (of course there’s a reason why he’s stopped building them).
Focusing on the tormented past of the central character, Ibsen deconstructs the psyche of his troubled hero. Has he fallen in love with a young girl? Has his family’s tragic past ruined his household’s dynamic irreparably? And what kind of debt does Solness still carry after building his career atop the tragedies of others, his own family’s included?
For what it’s worth, Ibsen’s text, in mining the depths of its characters’ psychological pasts, in many ways ends up eschewing moments of real emotional connection in favor of intellectual exploration. Solness’s relationships with both Kaja and his wife seem only cursorily drawn, remaining secondary to the towering presence of Hilda Wangel, portrayed with deep understanding by Susan Heyward, whose vulnerable, open-armed take on her character surpasses the other members in an above-average cast of veteran actors, including the fine David Chandler in the central role of Solness.
Theatergoers will either embrace or reject Ibsen’s comparisons between architecture and life, which dominate the play for better or worse. Timothy Brown’s scenic design – which figures the stage floor as the side of a house towering off into the distance, a second parallel house suspended above – chooses to embrace the symbolism of the play without allowing it to dominate the production.
There’s an element of control to Brown’s use of perspective, which puts a theatergoer’s line of vision below two towering structures, which helps to place the play in context, allowing the text to speak for itself but steering an audience through its thematic depths. Ultimately, design and direction converge, giving way to an above-average production of a less-than-perfect Ibsen work.