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L to R: Steve O'Connell, Berni Stapleton. Photo: Ritchie Perez.

Theatre Review: Between Breaths at the NAC—until 05.18.19

By Jennifer Cavanagh on May 11, 2019





A breathtaking journey to the sea and beyond 

This remarkable play tells the true story of the “whale man from Newfoundland”, Memorial University professor Dr. Jon Lien, who dedicated his life to freeing whales caught in fishing nets. The academic and conservationist worked mightily to free these enormous, imperilled creatures balancing his scientific activism with the needs of the fishing community. His respect for the mariners poignantly won him their hard-earned respect as he defied the very real tensions and conflicts that, still today, are a constant between industry and advocacy.

The play opens at the end of Lien’s (Steve O’Connell) life with him near infirmity and mentally adrift. As the cast takes to the stage, O’Connell gazes fiercely out at the audience, seats himself, then looks down only to lift head in a powerful transformation. The force of this opening is deeply affecting and sets the stage for O’Connell’s masterful performance. Lien’s life unfolds, in reverse, and we see the man “freed” from mobility and brain damage as the play tracks from his final days to his very first rescue of a whale. The backwards chronology emphasizes the heartbreaking irony between Lien’s own physical and mental imprisonment and his ardour and compassion for trapped beasts.

L to R: Berni Stapleton, Steve O’Connell. Photo: Ritchie Perez.

Painted eddies and whirlpools of swirling paint are augmented with little more that chairs and simple props. The circular set, serves as a time piece in which the cast move counter-clockwise as the strong-willed visionary, humbled by the lottery of health, is “freed” from his chair to a walker, a cane, able-bodied vigour and recovers his impressive orator skills.

The work by award-winning Newfoundland playwright Robert Chafe (Afterimage, Tempting Providence and Oil and Water) sprang from an empathy he felt for Lien’s career and a compulsion to share this story. Chafe, himself an actor, balances biographical particulars easily for a natural fluidity in his storytelling.

The company anchors Between Breaths with music written specifically for the production by acclaimed St. John’s folk trio The Once. Their music, performed by Brianna Gosse, Steve Maloney and Kevin Woolridge, provides a moving accompaniment to the action with a nod to the musical aesthetic of Canada’s east coast.

As the play reverses through in time, it swiftly follows the imperious yet infective strong-willed nature of Lien as he develops, by necessity, a radical approach to freeing whales from nets. Dunking his head in the freezing Atlantic while making only the most precise of cuts to preserve the net while freeing the animals. Lien released hundreds—thousands, as his techniques were adopted abroad—of the great mammals. An innovative scientist and environmentalist held in great esteem by his colleagues, the story’s lens lingers on the mutual admiration built with the fishing community as Lien made integral to his work the preservation of expensive gear and the precarious livelihood of the locals.

L to R: Darryl Hopkins, Steve O’Connell. Photo: Ritchie Perez.

Ensuring his techniques left nets with only minimal damage, a picture emerges of a driven man building a relationship of trust and respect with both beast and community. The collaborative ties between the pioneering conservationist and the local industry is at the core of his success, impressive legacy and central to the winning quality of this production. Wayne (Darryl Hopkins)—a collage of several of Dr. Lien’s colleagues—brings a performance beautifully in-sync with that of O’Connell, providing an in-depth and intimate look in to the personal life of the men, the techniques and community. The actors spark off each one another brilliantly in both heartbreaking and joyous scenes.

Between Breaths is a flawless tribute to Dr. Lien’s work and legacy; informative and captivating. But moreover, it is an all-encompassing and fearless play that embraces the most human of life’s journeys, touching profound emotional notes in deeply inspirational and universal production.

Between Breaths by Robert Chafe is playing at the National Arts Centre until May 18, 2019. Tickets cost $48 online and at the box office. The play runs for approximately 70 minutes with no intermission.