‘Builder’ illustrates universal themes

The play “The Master Builder” stars David Chandler (left) as Halvard Solness and Susan Heyward (right) as Hilda Wangel.
The play “The Master Builder” stars David Chandler (left) as Halvard Solness and Susan Heyward (right) as Hilda Wangel. Photo by Courtesy T.CharlesErickson.

A horizontal house suspended against the backdrop of a vertical stretch of cloudy blue sky invites the audience at the University Theatre to explore the ascendency, liberation and fall of the stage’s most famous architect. Staff reporter Zeynep Pamuk investigates the production.

The Yale Repertory Theatre production of Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder,” directed by Evan Yionoulis, tells the story of prominent architect Halvard Solness (David Chandler), who has achieved his professional success at the cost of alienation from his family. At the zenith of his career, Solness realizes that he might soon be overshadowed by his young and ambitious assistant Ragnar (Slate Holmgren), but his frustration with youth is challenged by the arrival of Hilda (Susan Heyward), a young and ebullient girl who might save or ruin the master builder.

Susan Heyward plays Hilda Wangel, a young girl who shapes the play.
Courtesy T.CharlesErickson
Susan Heyward plays Hilda Wangel, a young girl who shapes the play.

The play explores questions that are elemental and lasting, James Bundy DRA ’95, dean of the School of Drama and artistic director of the Rep, wrote in an e-mail.

“All of us have hopes and fears, aspirations and nagging doubts,” Bundy wrote. “We have domestic relationships and spiritual relationships, sometimes intermingled.”

Though the play was published in 1892, its themes about confidence and doubt, youth and middle age, and the human psyche in general make it timeless, Yionoulis, a professor at the Yale School of Drama, said.

“Recently a study came out that showed that girls begin to lose confidence in their abilities once they reach the age of 11,” she said. “When I got out of drama school, I felt invincible, but life teaches you different things, and you begin to question how you have become what you are.”

She added that her role as an educator at the School of Drama made the play especially interesting.

“We’re training the people who will take our places, but we also always feel like we’re climbing up,” Yionoulis said.

The fictional master builder Halvard and director Yionoulis are not the only ones who have felt this artist’s dilemma. When he wrote “The Master Builder,” Ibsen himself was at a similar stage in his life. Having completed his masterpieces “A Doll’s House,” “The Wild Duck” and “Hedda Gabbler,” Ibsen was entering a new phase in his career, shifting away from what critics described as the thematic clarity of earlier plays to more symbolic works.

Heyward, who plays the flirtatious Hilda, said her character’s desire to be around the master builder reflects a universal aspiration.

“Everyone wants to be in the presence of greatness, like when [President] Obama started his ascent, everyone wanted to be a part of it,” Heyward said.

She also emphasized her character’s earthiness and physicality, especially in juxtaposition with the vacillations of the master builder.

“During rehearsal Evan [Yionoulis] would say ‘None of the furniture is safe from Hilda,’ ” she recalled.

Though Ibsen’s themes are still relevant and the Rep production is loyal to the original, Yionoulis altered the setting. While Ibsen had set the action within the confines of the house, she decided to move it outdoors. The result is an exhilarating sense of space — both horizontal and vertical.

And emptiness — both physical and emotional — is an important actor in the drama.

“The loud echo of absence in Ibsen is mind-boggling,” Heyward said.

The play runs through Oct 10. at the University Theatre.

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