Between Breaths is a breathtaking and compassionate telling of one man’s legacy
Currently playing on the Factory Theatre Mainstage, Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland‘s production of Between Breaths tells the story of the life of Dr. Jon Lien. He was a world renowned whale researcher and conservationist known in Newfoundland as ‘The Whale Man’ for his pioneering techniques in rescuing whales from fishing nets.
Written by Governer-General Award winning playwright Robert Chafe after extensive interviews with Dr. Lien’s family, friends, and colleagues, Between Breaths is a compassionate and touching telling of the end of life story of an accomplished and complex man.
The play opens near to the end of Dr. Lien’s life. Wheelchair bound, non-verbal, and recently hospitalized, he is brilliantly portrayed by Steve O’Connell. The physicality and vocalization that O’Connell brings to depicting a man who knows that he has been diminished by forces outside of his control made me cry right from the starting moments of the play. Berni Stapleton is equally captivating as Judy Lien, emotionally torn by the decision to put her husband in the hospital while attempting to provide a sense of normalcy and hope.
From that opening scene the narrative of the play moves backwards through Dr. Lien’s life to the day that he rescued his first whale. Just as humpbacks are able to swim backwards to untangle themselves from nets before they are too entrapped, so too does the narrative unravel Lien’s life, career, and relationships with his wife and long-time assistant Wayne Ledwell (Darryl Hopkins).
This inverted storytelling method is unique and compelling to watch. It allows the audience to discover how the dynamics of the relationships between Jon and Judy, and Jon and Wayne, came to be as the play rewinds their relationships. Hopkins is compelling in his performance, starting the play evoking Wayne’s concern that Jon may have forgotten him. He is genuine in portraying grief over the gradual loss of the man who took him under his wing, even though Jon knew the past that Wayne himself struggles with.
The plot progression is cleverly mimicked through the actor’s movements around the stage in counter-clockwise circular motions, rewinding the clock of Jon’s life as they go. Along with the this metaphorical movement, the imagery of circles is repeated in the two-tiered circular stage set up to evoke ocean waves, and the dome above the stage which provides rippling waves of light throughout the performance.
The lighting (Leigh Ann Vardy) and set design (Shawn Kerwin) are minimalistic and monochromatic in hues of white, grey, and blue. This colour palette is carried into the costume design by Kerwin, and together it is all highly effective in conjuring the feeling of being underwater. The lighting gets brighter and the colours less muted the further back into Lien’s life the play travels – effectively illuminating his life’s work and accomplishments.
The whale-song and waves soundscape of the play (Brian Kenny), alongside the original music and arrangement by The Once hauntingly performed by the trio of Brianne Gosse, Steve Maloney, and Kevin Woolridge frames the performance and is intrinsically woven into the fabric of the play. The only minor issue that I had with the play was that the actors were all mic’ed in order to be heard over the musical trio. This made things a bit loud for me at times, as O’Connell’s increasingly intense and thundering voice easily carried over the music without the need of technical assistance.
It is clear to me why the long-standing artistic partnership of Chafe and Director Jiliam Keiley has been so remarkably successful. They obviously ‘get’ each other, and work to each other’s strengths. Keiley’s direction uplifts Chafe’s script, and requires a great deal of physicality from the actors, all of whom met her challenge. The thought put into the varied uses – and manipulations of – the few props on stage in imaginative ways shows her creativity in using the minimalist set. Along with the initial dramaturgy done by Iris Turcott, this play is a beautiful commemoration of the legacy of Jon Lien.
Between Breaths reminds us all that we all have incredible memories within us of those that we love, and that so long as we hold those memories close their legacies can never be diminished.
- Between Breaths plays at the Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst) until December 8, 2019.
- Shows run Tue-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm
- Tickets range from $25 to $50.
- Tickets can be purchased at the Factory Theatre box office, by phone at 416 504 9971, or online here.
- Run Time: This show is 80 minutes with no intermission.
Photo of Kevin Woolridge, Steve Maloney, Brianna Gosse,Steve O’Connell, Berni Stapleton by Ritche Perez