Stage Door Review

Between Breaths

Monday, November 25, 2019

✭✭

by Robert Chafe, directed by Jillian Keiley

Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland, Factory Theatre Mainspace, Toronto

November 21-December 8, 2019;

☛ Touring Canada until April 21, 2020 – see below

Lien: ”Human beings don’t want to let go so easily”

Between Breaths by Robert Chafe is currently making the Toronto stop of its cross Canada tour at the Factory Theatre. The play was created by Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland and anyone who has seen previous productions by that innovative company like Tempting Providence (2002), Fear of Flight (2008), Oil and Water (2011) or The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (2015), will not hesitate to see this new work. As usual the company combine spoken word, music and movement in unusual ways to tell a local story that resonates beyond its specific time and place.

In this case the story is about Jon Lien (1939-2010), a Memorial University professor renowned for his dedication to rescuing whales ensnared by fishing nets. Lien, who grew up in South Dakota, had no intention of becoming “the whale man” as he was later known in Newfoundland. He left the US in 1968 to study the behaviour of birds, specifically the storm petrel.

Ten years after moving to Newfoundland with his wife Judy, he received a call from a fisherman about a humpback whale that had become entangled in a net three months earlier and was still caught and unable to feed. No one had been able to help. Lien, who was interested in animal vocalizations, went to the site to record the sound of a whale in distress. Instead, he directed the fisherman to steer his zodiac up close to the whale so that he could seen how exactly it was caught. Lien manually disentangled the whale and suddenly became famous. The usual solution to such a problem at the time would have been simply to shoot the whale even though that would mean the loss of nets and all the fish that had been caught. Freeing a whale would not only save the whale but save the nets and their valuable contents.

In 1979 Lien formed the Whale Research Group, an educational and conservation campaign which ran the official marine animal release programme throughout the province. Lien also recognized the need for a partnership between biology and psychology to prepare students fully for comprehensive animal studies. This thinking led to the cognitive and behavioural ecology programme (CABE) at Memorial. From 1978 to 1996 when he retired, Lien rescued more that 500 marine animals.

When we first meet Lien in the play he is suffering from dementia so severe he can neither walk nor talk. We learn he had been diagnosed with the disease five years earlier. The action then proceeds to move backwards scene by scene to Lien’s first whale release in 1978.

In his Playwright’s Notes, Robert Chafe says that Lien’s family helped with anecdotes about his life “with the firm intent that Jon’s great legacy continue to be celebrated. I hope this play serves that purpose.” The play does serve that purpose but it is built on a dubious metaphor that constantly endangers its success.

Chafe has decided that Lien’s being caught in dementia is like a whale caught in a net. It is meant to be a great irony that a man who spent his life freeing animals should become entrapped and unfreeable himself. This notion affects the strategy of the storytelling. The progress backwards through time is meant to feel as if Lien’s life, which is impossible to understand in his initially demented condition, gradually becomes clearer and more whole as the action progresses, as if the story of his life were being freed from its confines. At the end we are supposed to see that this storytelling goal of Lien’s freeing of his first whale is somehow parallel to Lien’s release from disease by death.

The problem is that a disease is not the same as a net. Lien rescued whales to preserve both the whale and the net. One assumes we don’t want to preserve dementia. Chafe tells the story in reverse chronological order as if we are coming closer to Lien’s freedom by witnessing his beginnings, but Chafe also has Lien particularly state that the instinct of whales is to back out of a net a strategy which only entangles them even more. Thus, there is no parallel between the mode of storytelling and the means a whale would use to get free. To free a whale Lien and his assistant Wayne have to prevent whales from taking what to them would be a natural action, i.e. either backing up or diving.

In pursuing this false parallel between Lien’s entrapment in dementia and whales’ entrapment in nets, Chafe’s play is irreparably flawed. Nevertheless, the performers gives uniformly excellent performances. Chief among them is Steve O’Connell as Jon Lien. O’Connell carefully details Lien’s step-by-step reversal from dementia to soundness while giving indications, physical or verbal, of the decline that is to come. O’Connell’s sympathetic portrayal avoids the cantankerousness often given to older men of foresight. Rather O’Connell plays Lien as a man who seems to grow younger the more fully he is involved in action.

As Lien’s younger assistant Wayne, Darryl Hopkins serves as Lien’s foil, wishing to back off when Lien wants to push ahead, doubting when Lien wants to take action. Chafe and Hopkins hesitate to make Wayne a fully comic figure, but what little comedy there is in the play lies in the contrast between the recklessness of the older man and the caution of the younger.

Berni Stapleton gives a multilayered performance as Lien’s ever-suffering wife Judy. Before dementia has struck, she has to put up with Lien’s immediate response to midnight calls for whale rescue. After dementia has struck, she carries on speaking to Lien as is nothing has changed in the vain hope that her normality will somehow bring back his normality. The scenes between Stapleton and O’Connell at the beginning are the most moving of the play because Stapleton so sensitively shows the conflict between what Judy pretends is true and what she knows is true about Lien.

The action is accompanied by live music of the Newfoundland band The Once played by musician/vocalists Brianna Gosse, Steve Maloney and Kevin Woolridge. The music along with the whale calls of sound designer Brian Kenny would enhance the action except that the balance between the band and the miked actors is off so that we can barely hear the actors when the band is playing.

Jillian Keiley directs with her usual flair for physical theatre. A circuit of Shawn Kerwin’s blue, circular set indicates the passage of time. In one fine sequence we watch as Lien moves from the present into the past, from wheelchair to walker to cane to unaided walking, as he makes several rounds with Judy. Keiley can stimulate the imagine simply by using ordinary props. Wayne and Lien place two chairs facing each other. Wayne crouches in front of one using a cane hooked on the back of the chair seat to suggest steering a motor. Lien periodically lies on his stomach on the other chair seat dipping his head below seat level. We understand from this that they are in a boat with Wayne looking underwater at how entangled a whale has become.

More of this inventive use of of props and mime would have been welcome in the show. Surely Robert Chafe could have  written a play to commemorate Jon Lien without trying to find irony in his dementia. Surely a fine dramaturge would have steered him away from a metaphor that becomes contradictory. In any case, do see Between Breaths to learn more about Jon Lien and to appreciate the fine acting of O’Connell and his castmates. Still, any regular follower of Artistic Fraud will notice that this new work is not quite at the imaginative level of Tempting Providence or The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.

Christopher Hoile

Tour stops after Toronto, ON:

• Grand Theatre, London, ON

February 25-March 7, 2020;

• Belfry Theatre, Victoria, BC

March 17-21, 2020;

• Shadbolt Theatre, Burnaby, BC

March 25-28, 2020;

• Firehall Theatre, Vancouver, BC

March 31-April 5, 2020;

• The Playhouse, Fredericton, NB

April 15, 2020;

• Imperial Theatre, St. john, NB

April 16, 2020;

• Kings Playhouse, Georgetown, PEI

April 18, 2020;

• Harbourfront Theatre, Summerside, PEI

April 19, 2020;

• Capitol Theatre, Moncton, NB

April 21, 2020

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Darryl Hopkins as Wayne, Steve O’Connell as Jon Lien and Berni Stapleton as Judy, © 2019 Rich Blenkinsopp; Steve O’Connell as Jon Lien and Berni Stapleton as Judy, © 2019 Ritche Perez; Steve O’Connell as Jon Lien, © 2019 Ritche Perez.

For tickets, visit www.factorytheatre.ca.