Robert Chafe’s Play Between Breaths Memorializes Celebrated Scientist Jon Lien

Award-winning playwright Robert Chafe’s Between Breaths directed by Jillian Keiley, featuring original music composed by The Once, is being performed at The LSPU Hall, July 19-29.

Award-winning playwright Robert Chafe’s Between Breaths directed by Jillian Keiley, featuring original music composed by The Once, is being performed at The LSPU Hall, July 19-29.  

Between Breaths tells the true story of local academic and environmental advocate, Dr. Jon Lien (played by Steve O’Connell). In the late seventies, Lien became known for saving whales caught in fishing nets, using a method that salvaged as much of the fishing gear as possible. He would pull up alongside an ensnared whale, dunk his head in the freezing ocean, and make strategic cuts to free the whale without destroying the net.

Chafe grew up at a time when Greenpeace was targeting Newfoundland with a ruthless anti-sealing campaign. He says living through that period made him acutely aware of the long-standing tension between environmental conservationists and people working in natural resource industries in the province. Chafe was deeply moved by Lien’s ability to balance a commitment to environmental conservation with a respect for fisherpeople and their way of life.

“One thing I remembered about Jon Lien was that his name had come up a number of times through the fisher people in my family, and there was nothing but complete respect for him,” Chafe said. “Jon would take an operation that could take fifteen minutes – just slicing the net off – and he would take two to three hours, his head down in cold water with just a snorkel and a knife, identifying which cuts to make so that the whale could be freed. He would even preserve the catch and stick around afterwards pulling the fish up out of the water with the fishermen.”

Shortly after starting work on the play, Chafe learned Lien had recently passed away due to a progressive illness that impacted his mobility and memory. Between Breaths grew out of interviews Chafe did with Lien’s grieving family, colleagues, and students. The play moves backwards through time, beginning with Lien at the end of his life in a wheelchair, struggling to communicate with his wife through hand gestures. As the play unfolds, Lien’s symptoms regress and we learn more and more about how he came to be known across the island for rescuing whales.

The fact that the interview subjects were mourning when they spoke to Chafe informed the play; in many ways, Between Breaths is a reflection on loss. However, it is also a portrait of a man with a sense of adventure, who is full of boisterous confidence and compassion.

“It’s about what defines us as people – that potential that defines us as people still being there when outwardly it may appear to be stripped away by illness and death, that persistent, defining quality. In the case of Jon Lien, what he was known for and lauded for was his incredible strength of character, this zeal, this absolute fearlessness,” Chafe said, describing the play.

A workshop presentation of Between Breaths opened in St. John’s in 2016 and received glowing reviews from audience members and in the press. This July, Chafe is excited to be bringing back the original cast (Steve O’Connell, Bernadine Stapleton, and Darryl Hopkins) for a more polished production with a fuller set. Celebrated local musicians Brianna Goss, Steve Maloney, and Kevin Woolridge will be performing an original score by The Once onstage alongside the actors.

After its run in Newfoundland, Between Breaths will go on to be performed the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

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