Robert Chafe's play drains all the life from the story of Newfoundland animal behaviourist Jon Lien, who saved over 500 whales from fishing nets
In theory, Robert Chafe’s Between Breaths has all the ingredients for a gripping, involving biographical drama. It’s inspired by the real-life story of Jon Lien (Steve O’Connell), an animal behaviourist at Newfoundland’s Memorial University who saved over 500 whales from fishing nets. After being diagnosed with dementia, he died in 2010 at 71.
But Chafe’s script, which starts with Lien’s death and moves backwards, drains all life and vitality from the story, offering up chunks of exposition instead of showing us scenes that might make us get to know the man and his work.
Lien’s wife, Judy (Berni Stapleton), is given little to do but be a concerned, hand-wringing caregiver. Their children are mentioned but not dramatized. Likewise, Lien’s early years in the American Midwest – far away from the ocean – are mentioned but not explored. Lien does forge a connection with Wayne (Darryl Hopkins), a grizzled fisherman and former whaler who ends up being one of his best friends.
The show’s best scene is one in which Lien, helped by a young student (Hopkins again – in a scene that’s initially confusing, because it’s not clear whether he’s Wayne or not), disentangles a whale from a fishing net. Director Jillian Keiley stages the sequence effectively, having O’Connell balance himself on his stomach on a chair to suggest his dangerous activity.
More scenes like this – capturing Lien’s work and passions – are needed. Instead, we’re given information-heavy sequences that plod along on Shawn Kerwin’s raised circular set painted with swirling blues and whites.
Original music composed, arranged and performed by the Newfoundland-based group The Once adds some ambience. But too often the music distracts from the play, giving us soulful, mournful (and heavily amplified) warblings instead of letting us reach our own conclusions about the man.
After one particularly dramatic scene, rather than let the moment sink in, Keiley has the band sweep in, quickly altering the mood.
It’s just one instance of many in this tone-deaf, sentimental show about a man who deserves much, much better.