Trinity Rep makes poetry out of Ibsen's 'Wild Duck'

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A full day after seeing Ibsen's ''The Wild Duck'' at the Trinity Square Repertory here (through Jan. 1), I found myself talking about the main character , Hjalmar Ekdal (Daniel Von Bargen) as though he were a neighbor down the street.

Both Von Bargen and this poetically conceived production had bumped hard against me the night before and left a lasting impression. For me, the performance represented a relief from a long string of moribund Ibsen evenings. Then came the wonder of this ''Wild Duck,'' which has the temerity to treat Ibsen as a poet, instead of merely a social activist.

And there is poetry. Not necessarily the poetry of pretty language, but the imagist poetry that communicates something lasting, and common to us all.

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It takes a while to get to this imagery, though. The thing begins badly and begs your indulgence for the first 20 minutes or so. The wooden opening scene (played with metaphoric overstatement in front of a stained sheet) patently does not work. So much the more stunning, then, to find yourself coming into the quick center of this work and getting totally caught up in the imagery and theatrical power that are undeniably there.

One should not be surprised at finding such an experience at the Trinity Rep, now celebrating its 20th birthday here. With its upstairs and downstairs theater (''Wild Duck'' is performed in the smaller downstairs theater), the company attracts a loyal audience of subscribers and ticket buyers. And it does so with productions like this that leave you fumbling for words to describe them.

Even at its best, however, the Trinity can stumble. There are actors in the company who should bow gracefully out. There are productions that creak with age. And there are occasional losers - such as Trinity artistic director Adrian Hall's vastly overrated, bloated production of ''The Tempest.'' But then there are the consistent stunners, like ''The Wild Duck''; and they do keep coming.

This particular play offers formidable obstacles. There is, for instance, the metaphor of the wild duck, which Ibsen uses to beat his point over our head. (Director Hall has the good sense to turn this metaphor and some of the play's anachronisms into black comedy.)

But there is also a shared dream in this play. A dream of unified ideals, of escape from past shame. The dream centers on the loft adjoining Ekdal's apartment, where he has come to house his shamed father, his wife, and his daughter, Hedvig, who is going blind.

Ekdal's wife, Gina, played with solid conviction by Cynthia Strickland, is the cast-off mistress of his father's former partner. Ekdal's father still takes handouts from his former partner, even though a past crime sundered their business relationship. So Ekdal and family have all come to a refuge among scoundrels. Most notable among the scoundrels is Ekdal's darkside confidant, Dr. Relling - portrayed with magnificent seediness and dour pragmatism by Timothy Crowe.

The only escape from borderline poverty and half-sensed shame here is in illusions of nobility. And everyone, including Relling, is willing to look benignly on everyone else's illusions, the summation of which reside in the loft , along with the wounded wild duck found in the woods by Ekdal's father.

In building this loft, designer Eugene Lee has created a tangible reverie, one that we enter almost magically, through Hedvig's dim eyes. Although we see it in toto only once, the image is with us all night long. It is the controlling idea of this play, as effective when it is hidden as when we are staring right at it.

Adrian Hall's skillful direction entices us into the shared illusion of this loft and then keeps us there.

As I sat in the theater, I found myself thinking about the times I had been similarly enticed during the two-year slice I have taken out of Trinity's two decades. ''The Dresser'' and ''Jack Abbott's Letters From Prison'' occupied this downstairs space. Upstairs, ''Fifth of July'' and ''Billy Bishop Goes to War'' stick in my memory.

I found in these plays the same combination of powerful acting and inspired production-design . . . the same sense of wonder that the place is nearly always full . . . and the same admiration for what Adrian Hall and company have built, against the nearly insuperable odds facing regional theaters:

To wit, a company embedded in its community, dedicated to powerful theater, and remarkable for its consistent craftsmanship.

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