Diana Bentley marks her final act in a decade as “co-Chief Engineer” at Coal Mine Theatre (with her husband and fellow co-founder Ted Dykstra) by stepping into a coveted and challenging leading role for even the most accomplished actress. That creative partnership has allowed Bentley and Dykstra to chase their professional goals and helped Coal Mine to flourish as a proving ground for new talent across the city over the past decade.


As Bentley passes that torch, her final challenge is a role that still stands out after more than a century as a study of personal ambition throttled by domestic drudgery. Coal Mine Theatre becomes the stuffy prison for Hedda Gabler whose esteemed maiden name is a cruel reminder of what she lost in her loveless marriage to nebbish academic Jorgen Tesman, who can’t understand or interest his wife and risks failing to provide for her demanding tastes when the success of an old rival (in more ways than he even knows) puts his professorship prospects in jeopardy. Her desire to be heard and feel powerful  – at a time when many women had to fight for a speaking role in their own lives – envelops and ruins everyone around her.


Any Hedda Gabler will sink or swim based on its title character – Bentley’s Gabler has an electrifying stage presence that grabs your attention right away and grasps it tight until her final gunshot. She’s in her element as she tramples over her unfortunate acquaintances, from her husband’s world-weary aunt Julia to her timid schoolmate Thea – whose love and care for Hedda’s old flame Eilert helped his path to recovery that Hedda is eager to derail – but she sizzles most as she meets her match in the devious and charismatic Judge Brack (Shawn Doyle). Their brief, threat-laden flirtation is so compelling that it overshadows her central reunion with Eilert, who ends up feeling oddly incidental despite a fine performance by Andrew Chown, but Qasim Khan offers just the right contrast as her hapless and earnest husband Tesman. As Khan prepares for the title role in Canadian Stage’s Hamlet this summer, his Tesman is the perfect second fiddle to a lead role often described as “the female Hamlet”. I was left enthralled watching Hedda work her magic but wanting a more well-rounded picture of this Hedda’s talents – the rare touches of tenderness that are such sharp tools of manipulation in her hands and the disarming politesse that she must wield so artfully to succeed in high society.


The staging makes clever use of the intimate and enclosed space that Coal Mine Theatre occupies just off the Danforth. The audience is thrust into the dull domestic life that awaits Hedda every day of her marriage, surrounding her home with a view that would be voyeuristic if there was anything to catch the eye. We may not embrace the full force of Hedda’s lust for power but we can see why she feels so trapped – and why even her more ‘normal’ counterparts resist that stifling form of order. The “smell of lavender and dried roses” hits all the senses – luckily, the “odour of death” is left to the imagination.


This Hedda is certainly Bentley’s Hedda but she is backed by a decorated team with a strong connection to the work and role. Director Moya O’Connell had starred as lead in one performance of Gabler and directed another before coming to Toronto to drive this one. Liisa Repo-Martell’s adaptation gives Bentley the room to make the role her own but with a light enough touch to let these other voices be heard. There are always more aspiring Heddas – including an adaptation at Stratford in just a few weeks – but Bentley’s sets the bar high.