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SCRUTINY | Coal Mine’s Hedda Gabler Ambitious & Worthy, With A Couple Of Cavils

By Paula Citron on May 16, 2024

Diana Bentley with Shawn Doyle and Qasim Khan in Coal Mine Theatre’s production of Hedda Gabler (Photo: Elana Emer)
Diana Bentley with Shawn Doyle and Qasim Khan in Coal Mine Theatre’s production of Hedda Gabler (Photo: Elana Emer)

Coal Mine Theatre/Hedda Gabler, written by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Liisa Repo-Martell, directed by Moya O’Connell, Coal Mine Theatre, closes June 7. Tickets here

Hedda Gabler is a powerful play that is being given a powerful production by Coal Mine Theatre. While I do have some reservations, they in no way compromise the theatre’s ambitious and worthy undertaking of a classic.

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen premiered Hedda Gabler in 1891, and today the work is considered one of the great masterpieces of 19th century literature. Ibsen imbued his play with strong characters and complicated relationships, all touched by intriguing psychological overtones, which makes Hedda Gabler an endlessly fascinating enterprise.

Liisa Repo-Martell did a superior job with her adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, so I had great hopes for her Hedda Gabler, and, for the most part, she has come up with a winner. I do wish, however, that the references to Hedda’s background were more sharply worded. As in the original, Repo-Martell gives the major speech to Aunt Julia, but it is almost as a throw-away line. In this adaptation, I doubt the audience realizes the importance of the general in understanding Hedda.

The play is called Hedda Gabler, the character’s unmarried name, and not Hedda Tesman, her married one. She is her father’s daughter, the daughter of a general, which, Ibsen would seem to indicate, had a lot to do with forming her rather mangled personality. After all, General Gabler’s pistols do play a major role in the plot.

As the play opens, Hedda (Diana Bentley) has just returned from her honeymoon with husband Jorgen Tesman (Qasim Khan) whom she married only for security and a rich society lifestyle. Jorgen’s sweet Aunt Julia (Fiona Reid) is hoping for a baby, a thought which Hedda finds detestable. Lascivious Judge Brack (Shawn Doyle) is purportedly a family friend, but he has designs on Hedda. Berta (Nancy Beatty) is the Tesmans’ servant who is in awe of Hedda.

Thea Elvsted (Leah Doz) is an old school mate of Hedda’s and has left her elderly husband to be with Eilert Lovborg (Andrew Chown) whom she loves. Sadly for Thea, they had only a platonic relationship while they worked together on his new book, which is a literary masterpiece. Lovborg is a competitor with Tesman for a professorship. The former once ruined his promising career by becoming a depraved alcoholic, but he has made a recovery under Thea’s influence. To further complicate the mix, Lovborg and Hedda were once lovers, while Tesman had a fling with Thea.

Qasim Khan and Shawn Doyle in Coal Mine Theatre’s production of Hedda Gabler (Photo: Elana Emer)
Qasim Khan and Shawn Doyle in Coal Mine Theatre’s production of Hedda Gabler (Photo: Elana Emer)

Hedda is the lynchpin of the play and what a rich character she presents. Her sense of entitlement, her manipulative nature, her desire for power, her innate selfishness, her coldness towards gentleness and kindness, even her ideal of romantic courage, all stem from having been the spoiled daughter of a strong, possibly overbearing parent, and Bentley does rise to the challenge of presenting these many facets of Hedda’s personality.

She also does a wonderful job with subtext. We feel her disdain for Aunt Julia, Berta and even her own husband. We know she seems to be extraordinarily interested in hearing about Lovborg. We understand that she is wary of Judge Brack, who seems to have her number. When it is her turn, however, to swing into action to get her own way with Lovborg, she pours on the strength. In short, Bentley goes through an emotional rollercoaster in splendid fashion. Her Hedda is her father’s daughter.

Khan plays Tesman as the nice guy he is. He is enamoured of his wife, hardly believing that he won Hedda Gabler for himself, but he is not, thankfully, a wimp. He is clearly intelligent, having earned a PhD for his research. The problem is, he is too normal for a neurotic personality such as Hedda. He is also blinded by her allure. All in all, Khan’s performance elevates Tesman into a very sympathetic character.

Doyle is delicious as the slimy Judge Brack, and the role works even better because he is younger than most actors who play the character as a dirty old man. Doyle is the dirty young man who radiates confidence and control. He is thoroughly detestable in a very seductive way, and his cat and mouse repartee with Hedda is particularly masterful.

Andrew Chown, Diana Bentley (back), and Leah Doz in Coal Mine Theatre’s production of Hedda Gabler (Photo: Elana Emer)
Andrew Chown, Diana Bentley (back), and Leah Doz in Coal Mine Theatre’s production of Hedda Gabler (Photo: Elana Emer)

Doz plays Thea on mostly one note, frantic rising to hysterical, but that is the way the part is written. Nonetheless, she gives a passionate performance that is filled with sincerity, and towards the end, does manage to find her self-assurance. Doz has a stronger presence on stage than other Theas I’ve seen.

Similarly, Chown is a stronger Lovborg than most. In a way, he has a thankless role because the character is not as filled out as others in the play, but Chown gives Lovborg definition. He is definitely in command of himself before losing out to Hedda’s machinations.

Reid and Beatty are their usual excellent selves in their secondary roles. Both these actors were once leading ladies, and it is so heartening to see them develop into character roles, proving that talent will always win out.

Apparently, actor Moya O’Connell has recently moved into directing and she does a more than credible job with Hedda Gabler. She has kept the complex relationship structure swirling throughout, while bringing to the fore strong characterizations. I like the way she moves her actors through the set pieces in a naturalistic fashion.

I do have a couple of cavils, however. Sometimes O’Connell lets her characters become a little too shrill (Thea), or a little to frenzied (Lovborg), or a little too loud (Brack). As well, I am not pleased with the ending which I found murky and mushy, when I wanted heartstopping drama. The play ends with a whimper and not the bang I wanted (pardon the pun). I can’t expand more on this topic because I don’t want to give anything away.

Joshua Quinlin’s set is on the long, meaning the narrow corridor between two sides of the audience which is neck ache inducing. Nonetheless, his period set pieces and costumes work fine. Composer Emily Haines’ music adds to the period feel, while Kaitlin Hickey provides the suitable lighting.

A powerful production, certainly, but with a few blips on the landscape.

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Paula Citron
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