Artistic Fraud’s “Between Breaths” premiered at the LSPU Hall on Thursday to a sold-out crowd.
Workshopped two years ago, Thursday marked the official launch of the Robert Chafe-written and Jillian Keiley-directed play, which tells the life story of Jon Lien, a Memorial University professor renowned for his dedication to the dangerous work of rescuing whales ensnared by fishing nets.
Eight years after Lien’s death, “Between Breaths” begins at the end of the American-turned-Newfoundlander’s life, working backward to the beginning of his time on the island.
We meet Lien, played by Steve O’Connell, sitting in a wheelchair in a hospital room, generally unresponsive to the chitchat of his wife Judy, played by Berni Stapleton.
The hospital room is also where the audience meets Lien’s friend and colleague, Wayne, played by Darryl Hopkins, who comes to chat with his old pal.
The LSPU Hall stage was elaborately set, with a swirling, hand-painted circular floor and platform acting as both a prop and a location for musicians and singers Steve Maloney, Brianna Gosse and Kevin Woolridge.
Together, the trio performed a beautiful underscore, composed by local folk band The Once. The musical accompaniment, ebbing and flowing with the changing scenes of the show, transformed this play into a cinematic adventure. It really truly felt like I was watching a movie.
At many points in the show, I felt entranced by the performances of the musicians and the actors — simultaneously engrossed by Lien’s amazing life story.
The audience learned of Lien’s unfortunate decline in health, experiencing it backwards. His wheelchair was replaced by a walker, then a cane, with Lien eventually back at home, where Judy begins recognizing his failing health, marked by a delusional episode Lien chaulks up to simply “being confused.”
Identifying and combating Lien’s degenerative mental illness pulled on the heartstrings, many audience members audibly crying and sniffling during this scene.
Though the subject matter can be sad at times, “Between Breaths” is truly a celebration of a remarkable person and the many amazing things he accomplished during his time on Earth, from helping whales, working with fishermen and promoting awareness for environmental conservation, to running a farm and raising a family.
Lien’s son, Elling, and wife, Judy, were in attendance for the premiere, and as I caught glimpses of movement in the adjoining seats, I peripherally saw the family gently nudge each other, lean forward intently, and smile softly, occasionally clasping each other’s hands. Their silent emotional connectedness spoke volumes of their love and respect for a legend locally known as “the whale man.”
This is what kept me smiling, instead of softly crying throughout this beautiful show.
I said back in February that Paul J. Power’s “Crippled” may be the best show of the year, but after seeing Chafe’s “Between Breaths,” I may have to retract that statement — they’re both tied for Number 1.
Get your tickets before this show rightfully sells out its 10-day run.