Darryl Hopkins, Steve O’Connell & Berni Stapleton. Set & costume design by Shawn Kerwin. Lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy. Photo by Rich Blenkinsopp.
Factory Theatre continues the celebration of its 50th anniversary with a presentation of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s production of Robert Chafe’s Between Breaths, directed by Jillian Keiley, assisted by Sharon King-Campbell, with music direction by Kellie Walsh. A biographical memory play, the reverse chronological storytelling highlights key moments during the final years of the life of Jon “The Whale Man” Lien, an animal behaviour professor from South Dakota who came to find a home in Newfoundland when he took a position at Memorial University. Eventually becoming known for his work saving over 500 whales caught up in fishing nets before dementia took his mobility, memory and ability to engage with the world as he once did, his relationship with the gentle giants of the sea reminds us of how interconnected are land and sea, man and animal.
Otherworldly, yet grounded in time and place; intensely magical and real, Between Breaths takes us on a reverse trajectory from Jon Lien’s (Steve O’Connell) final days in a long-term care facility, to the frustrating and life-altering onset of his symptoms, to his emerging calling toward saving whales caught up in fishing nets, and salvaging the costly nets for the fishermen. Throughout, Jon is both supported and doubted by his beloved wife Judy (Berni Stapleton), and whale-saving friend and colleague Wayne (Darryl Hopkins), who are alternately exasperated with and taken up by his passion, drive and vision.
Beyond the conservation work, there is a kindred spirit connection between Jon and the whales; an inexplicable, ancestral calling that began the moment he viewed the Rock from the plane—his Viking DNA drawn to the rocky green and surrounding ocean. Present, passionate and proactive in an unwavering commitment to follow through with thoughts and impulses that eventually gel into a broader vision, Jon endeavours to save the gentle giants of the sea and the precious, costly nets that trapped them—contributing to both species conservation and the economic well-being of fishermen.
Lovely, compelling work from the cast in this counter clockwise journey of a man, his work with the beautiful creatures he works to save, and his life and work partners. O’Connell gives a mercurial, profoundly poignant performance as Jon Lien. Charismatic, impulsive and at times infuriating in his single-mindedness, Jon has a sharp mind and enormous heart that can be a challenge for his family and colleagues to keep up with, but he always has a way of turning situations—and people—around. He is well-supported by Stapleton’s Judy, a loving wife and partner in life who holds the fort at home with their children, and continues to reach out in the face of his advanced dementia, even when it’s unclear that he can understand or respond. And by Hopkins’ gruff, salty Wayne; initially cynical and skeptical of Jon’s motives and vision—and wary of folks from away—Wayne is won over by Jon’s contagious optimism, passion and energy. And Wayne gradually comes to trust in himself as much as Jon does.
Accompanied by a live acoustic and vocal soundtrack performed by The Once (Brianna Gosse, Steve Maloney and Kevin Woolridge), and featuring beautiful, haunting whale song, the scenes are performed with minimal set pieces and props on Shawn Kerwin’s stunning blue stage, where the action plays out as if under water. The swirling blues and greens below the sparkling ripples reflecting the sun and sky above—and a C-shaped ramp wraps the playing area—evoking the unseen life beneath the surfaces of the ocean and the mind; the sights and sounds both mirror and complement the action.
Between Breaths reminds us of the strength and fragility of even the largest and most powerful of Earth’s creatures; and Jon Lien’s struggles with evolving dementia run parallel to the experience of a trapped whale—with all the notes of grief that accompany those moments when a living being comes face to face with its own mortality. Life, love, joy, memory and connection happen between those breaths. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring to witness.
Between Breaths continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until December 8; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416- 504-9971. Go see this.