Between Breaths

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

A Whale of a Tale, Rooted in History and Emotion

Historical drama often runs the risk of being superficial – focused exclusively on dates, events, and actions. Where Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland excels is in its ability to add depth to its productions, effectively bringing history to life. And in Between Breaths, the cast and crew’s ability to explore the depths of passion, love, and even arrogance brings the story of Jon Lien to life in a way that’s heartfelt and engaging.

Between Breaths recounts the life story of Jon Lien, an American-born researcher who came to Newfoundland and fell in love with the province and its whales. Initially there to study birds, Lien transitioned to whales and pioneered techniques to help rescue these animals when they would get caught up in fishermen’s nets – putting both the whales’ health at risk and having significant impact on the financial wellbeing of the fishermen through damaged nets. Not only did he save hundreds of whales in Newfoundland, his innovative preventative techniques and training of others has led to thousands of whales being saved.

The story begins at the end with Lien suffering from both mental and physical impairments that have rendered him trapped in his own body, with limited capacity to communicate. From there the story travels backward in time, key moment by key moment, in reverse chronological order. There are moments of subtlety that are absolutely inspired in their execution — the cast transitioning from moment to moment, moving farther back in time, by walking counter clockwise in the circle; the whale songs echoing Lien’s desire to speak; the musicians around the circle building to a rousing crescendo at key moments.

Anchoring it all is Steve O’Connell’s interpretation of Jon. His ability to transform from catatonia to youthful vigour in subtle stages is masterful. We are able to watch him shed his disability in stages as the play progresses in a way that’s both natural and striking. And the strength of his performance comes from not deifying Lien, but rather presenting his strengths and weakness – his intelligence, natural talent, and drive are balanced by his arrogance, his at-times-disrespectful behaviour, and his propensity to leave tasks (and even lifestyles) half-completed and turned into other people’s responsibilities.

Berni Stapleton is strong emotionally as Judy, Jon’s devoted wife who moves with him to Newfoundland, following the pursuit of his dreams. Sadly, her character is not as fleshed out as the other two principals. She chafes at Jon starting projects that directly impact her (including building a farm and buying goats, but leaving her to be the principal farmer), and she talks about having little choice – and no consideration – in the process of moving across the continent from Washington State to Newfoundland, but other than devotion to her husband, we get little sense of her desires and needs. As a supporting cast member in Jon’s life, she’s not given a tremendous amount of depth.

Darryl Hopkins, as Jon’s partner and eventual successor, Wayne, grounds the play in Newfoundland, from his accent to his salt-of-the-earth attitude. Through him, we explore Jon’s interactions with the whales, his motivations, and his fearlessness. Wayne is also given a bit of a redemption arc at the end of the play.

The set and the musicians play equally important roles and, in some ways, serve as a fourth cast member. Clever use of sound, lighting, and a limited series of props – think chairs and rope – are creatively used by the cast to convey the tension, stress, and chaos involved with freeing a massive whale from a net – all despite the fact that the net and whale are represented only in our imagination. And the musicians, despite being present on stage throughout, never feel out of place and are effectively integrated into the show, whilst providing a method to amplify key moments.

As in their recent presentation at The Grand, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland has proven itself masterful at taking historical moments and figures and infusing them with a layer of humanity that draws the audience in. The company, and this production, not only recount an important Canadian historical person, but also embrace the spirit of that history and bring it to life with depth and heart.