Review: Between Breaths is a whale of a tale

Steve O’Connell, as Jon Lien, and Berni Stapleton,as Judy Lien, in a scene from Between Breaths. Photo: Ritche Perez

Had the late Jon Lien read the new United Nations report on our sprint toward mass species extinction, he wouldn’t have joined the rest of us in a hand-wringing session. He would have done something, and, from what we learn about Lien in Robert Chafe’s fine, short play Between Breaths (National Arts Centre), it would have been fearless, hands-on and consequential.

Lien (Steve O’Connell) was the animal behaviourist who left his native, landlocked North Dakota in the late 1960s to teach at Memorial University and went on to build an international reputation for freeing whales without destroying those expensive fishing nets that tangled them. That his academic specialization was birds and that he had never saved a whale in his life when he first did it in 1978 meant nothing to him. He saw the need, plunged his head into the frigid north Atlantic waters and got on with the job. Over the ensuing decades, he became the go-to guy for net entanglements while carrying on with a cavalcade of other pursuits.

Chafe covers this necessary background in quick fashion near the top of the play by cleverly making it the text read aloud at Lien’s investiture into the Order of Canada in 2008, two years before his death. That investiture is woven into the play’s anti-clockwise structure, which begins with the once-robust Lien wheelchair-bound and entangled by dementia in a heartrending scene and then works backward through his decades as “the whale man of Newfoundland” before coming full circle with an affirming resolution.

Deeply moving, intimate and intense, Between Breaths is rooted in circles.

Lien and his devoted, frequently exasperated wife Judy (Berni Stapleton) move in circles on Shawn Kerwin’s ring-like set of swirling ocean colours.

When Lien recruits the once-suspicious fisherman Wayne (Darryl Hopkins) to help him free a whale, Lien’s determination and Wayne’s fear of dying at sea go round and round in argument, with Lien eventually winning out (one doubts he lost many arguments).

The whales, who take on their own, slightly alien characters in Chafe’s attentive writing, are circled by those potentially fatal nets just as fishers like Wayne, a former whaler, are entangled in the need to provide for their families in a dangerous, often hostile environment.

Brianna Gosse, Steve Maloney and Kevin Woolridge – the three musicians who enrich the play with music by Newfoundland’s the Once – sit in a partial semi-circle around the acting space, while Brian Kenny’s soundscape, especially the mysterious undersea noise, surrounds us.

Constructed in close collaboration with the late dramaturg Iris Turcotte, Chafe’s circular concept draws us in immediately and keeps us bound to the tightly knit story, to Lien and Judy’s long, loving marriage, to Lien and Wayne’s increasingly fond and respectful relationship, to the community of which they are all part, and to the whales themselves and Lien’s connection with them.

Directed economically by Jillian Keiley, actors O’Connell, Stapleton and Hopkins are all strong and credible.

O’Connell’s Lien is a kind of a Roman candle, exploding in a thousand directions at once with his enthusiasm, intelligence and ever-expanding circle of projects. “If I finished everything I started, I’d never be done,” he tells Judy in the kind of baffling rationale to which there’s no counter-argument.

Judy and Wayne, while characters in their right, shed new light on Lien at every stage without ever turning the story into hagiography. “You always do this – you charge ahead … most people think about consequences,” says Judy, and you feel for her but cheer for him. “You got a way of turning people around,” says Wayne to Lien, and you know Lien would do that to you if you ever opposed him.

If The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Chafe’s adaptation of Wayne Johnston’s novel about Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood that played the NAC in 2017 and in which O’Connell portrayed Smallwood’s alcoholic father, had a sprawling, national scope, Between Breaths is quite the opposite. At the same time, the tautly told story ties us to the bigger world of immense sea creatures, the oceans and a world in which we might figure less importantly than we imagine though far more damagingly than we’ve thus far pretended.

Between Breaths is an Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland (St. John’s) production. In the Azrieli Studio until May 18. It was reviewed Thursday. Tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787,

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.