BWW Review: BETWEEN BREATHS Leaps Joyously Out of Sadness at Factory Theatre
Dr Jon Lien, the whale man of Memorial University, earned his nickname over a lifetime of rescuing trapped whales off the coast of Newfoundland. His brilliant career, as well as the painful circumstances surrounding his death, inspired Newfoundland's own Robert Chafe to write BETWEEN BREATHS, a short, music-infused drama that traces Jon's life from his last moments backwards through his career, uncovering his boundless capacity for compassion and respect for the joy of other creatures.
In the opening scene, Jon (Steve O'Connell) sits in a wheelchair, non-verbal, seemingly unaware of his surroundings. His wife, Judy (Berni Stapleton) tries to comfort him through his distress, but there's not much she can do: she is here and he is trapped somewhere in his own mind.
As the play unfolds, Jon's life moves backwards, through his last monosyllabic days of speaking, through his first moments of memory loss, to, finally, his glory days of rescuing whales with the help of fisherman Wayne (Darryl Hopkins), teaching students, and raising goats. With each scene, Jon takes on more vigour and passion, more love for his work and family and life. It is uplifting and heartbreaking at once to watch Jon out on the water, diving into freezing temperatures to save a life, as we know that, in the end, no one could save him.
BETWEEN BREATHS is an elegy for those beautiful creatures, men and whales alike, who die without the dignity they deserve; a hymn to the boundless human capacity for compassion; and a promise that joy is always possible, always there, even when it isn't obvious. When you love someone, Chafe seems to argue, you recognise their moments of joy, even when the rest of the world sees only pain.
The small cast of BETWEEN BREATHS are accompanied on stage by folk band The Once, consisting of Brianna Gosse, Steve Maloney, and Kevin Woolridge. Their music is soft, non-lyrical, evocative of the ocean and whale sounds and other eternal things. They set the peaceful tone for the play, assure us that even in moments of panic there can be comfort.
BETWEEN BREATHS is that rare piece of art that is both hopeful and truthful, that finds the beauty of the world without denying its cruelty.
Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland's BETWEEN BREATHS runs through 8 December at Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst St, Toronto.
For more information or to buy tickets, click here.
Photo credit: Ritche Perez