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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Theatre review: Between Breaths is magical

Rarely has a show attempted to do so much and still manage to hit the target over and over again

Incorporating music from an onstage band and a true story told from end to beginning Between Breaths succeeds at everything it sets out to do with a most unlikely hero at its centre.

When Dr. Jon Lien relocated from North Dakota to Newfoundland for work, his wife recalls when he stepped off the plane, he felt at home. The love of Newfoundland and the Maritimes is strongly felt throughout Between Breaths with incredible music composed and arranged by The Once and performed live by Brianna Gosse, Steve Maloney and Kevin Woolridge.

With live music being featured more in theatrical performances, it often feels tacked on for effect. That is not the case here as the musicians infuse the piece with such tension that there is no CD for sale in the lobby is disappointing.

Directed by Jillian Keiley with simple and effective set design by Shawn Kerwin and dramatic lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy, the show looks as good as it feels. Keiley doesn’t let her actors play scenes to elicit audience emotion. The simplicity and straightforwardness of the performances make it all the more heart-wrenching. While the show looks stunning, with its strong storytelling, it could just as easily be performed in a Newfoundland pub.

At the centre of the play is a towering performance by Steve O’Connell as Dr. Lien. O’Connell’s physicality is demonstrated in a scene as he starts to lose his capacities, working hard to open and close his hand and fingers. The precision and focus make this simple act electrifying to watch. His performance is worth the price of admission alone.

But it’s not the only thing worth seeing. Supporting O’Connell is Berni Stapleton as his wife, struggling to make sense of what’s happening to her husband. Stapleton plays frustrated affection with perfection and her love for her spouse is palpable, whether he is in a near-vegetative state or bounding about their farmhouse talking about his future.

Darryl Hopkins plays the doctor’s protege Wayne, a grizzled but warm Newfoundlander. At first wary of the newcomer, he eventually begins to hold him in high regard as a mentor and friend. Hopkins brings welcome laughs to the proceedings. A scene in which Jon and Wayne are attempting to rescue a whale had the audience in stitches.

Bernie Stapleton and Steve O'Connell in the Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland production of Between Breaths. Photo by Stoo Metz.
Berni Stapleton and Steve O’Connell in the Neptune Theatre presentation of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s production of Between Breaths. Photo by Stoo Metz.

Telling a story in reverse is not new, but rarely is it used to such significant effect as it is in Between Breaths. Seeing a man’s journey from hospital bed to spry go-getter makes the play that much more memorable. It also means the tears come early and often. Make sure you bring some tissue.

Canadian works such as this appear to be having somewhat of a resurgence of late, including at Neptune Theatre. With all three shows so far this season original Canadian works, with more to come, it is something Haligonians should be thankful to Jeremy Webb for programming.

The advertising for Between Breaths states the play is about a man who studied and saved whales. If you think that’s an odd choice for a half-play-half-musical, you’d be right. Hopefully, the subject matter doesn’t deter audiences, because the theatre should be full to see this magical Newfoundland import.

Not since Come From Away has a Canadian play so enthralled me. While it remains to be seen if Between Breaths will do for whale researchers what Come From Away did for Gander if you are a fan of what the theatre can do and be I suggest you grab your tickets now.

Between Breaths by Robert Chafe. Directed by Jillian Keiley. Music composed and arranged by The Once. A Neptune Theatre presentation of an Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland production. On stage at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall (1593 Argyle St, Halifax) until November 10. Visit for tickets and information.

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