The NAC’s Between Breaths from St. John’s Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland theatre captures the life of animal behaviorist Jon Lien, who moved to Newfoundland to study storm petrels and ended up becoming known around the world for his ability to rescue whales from fishing nets. Before Lien, whales tangled in nets were routinely shot and took the fishing nets with them, which would cause financial ruin for the fisherman. Lien worked tirelessly to save both whales and fishermen’s livelihoods.

Lien was called the “whale man” by many and the play, written by Robert Chafe and directed by NAC English Theatre’s Artistic Director Jillian Keiley, is much more about the man than the whales. It’s a human tragedy, not an animal one, and it’s not a solid biography either, but instead chooses to look at Lien in a wider way rather than focus on the facts. The play begins with Lien at his worse in a nursing home and ends with him at the peak of his life—we see what he used to be only after we saw what he became at the end of his life.

The acting and live onstage music stand out as the best attributes of the show, particularly Steve O’Connell as the elderly Lien in a nursing home. It’s a powerful emotional punch to give the audience their first look at Lien as wheelchair-bound, unable to speak, and in the last stages of some degenerative disease, possibly dementia. His doting wife Judy is acted perfectly by Berni Stapleton who brings so much love and tenderness to the stage, in contrast to the gruff but caring former-whaler Wayne, played by Darryl Hopkins, who becomes Lien’s closest associate and friend and who represents the tough fisherman in contrast to Jon and Judy’s academic background. The melancholic folk score was composed by Newfoundland trio The Once and is performed live onstage by Newfoundland Brianna Gosse, Steve Maloney, and Kevin Woolridge. It’s a guitar-heavy score with some harmonica, mandolin, bodhran, shakers, tambourines and plenty of wordless vocalizing that heightens the emotion of an already-emotional play and works well with the actors onstage.

Although the play is about Earth’s largest animals, the production itself is small—in cast and space it takes up. Shawn Kermin’s set design is compact and, with three musicians and three actors onstage at all times, almost crowded. That being said, it’s evident that the show doesn’t need more space. The action happens in a lowered circle, musicians on the ledge above, and the small space is used intelligently. Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting design bathes everything in a soft blue light which evokes the ocean, and whale sounds and bird noises are abundant, courtesy of sound designer Brian Kenny. With the small stage, soft lighting, ocean noises, and atmospheric folk score, Between Breaths is oddly soothing despite focusing on such a human tragedy. It’s a play about grief that does a lot to comfort too.

This article was originally posted on Capital Critic’s Circle on May 10 and has been reposted with permission.

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This post was written by Ryan Pepper.

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