Award-winning play ‘Jake’s Gift’ pays tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in World Wars
© Photo By Tim Matheson
Julia Mackey plays four different characters in her one-woman play, ‘Jake’s Gift’ which tells the story of a WWII veteran who reluctantly returns to Normandy, France, to find the grave of the brother who never came home. Here, she is in character as Isabelle, a precocious 10-year old girl, whom the main character meets on the shore of Juno Beach.
Described as ‘theatrically pure’, ‘impressively written’ and ‘a show not to be missed,’ the one-woman play ‘Jake’s Gift’ pays homage to all those who paid the ultimate price.
The production — written and performed by Julia Mackey, and directed by her partner, Dick van Stratlen — will hit the stage in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Remembrance Day, Nov. 11, at 8 p.m.
This is Mackey’s second time bringing this show to the region, having performed the play the first time in the spring of 2011.
However, this time, the timing of the play is significant.
“So many of the soldiers who joined up in the World Wars were from the Maritimes and Newfoundland and Labrador, and continue to join up today,” said Mackey, in an email interview with The Labradorian.
“When we toured the area (in 2009 and 2011) we were so moved by the response to the show. We are very excited to be sharing Jake's Gift in Goose Bay, and having the show on Remembrance Day makes it a very special time indeed.”
Jake’s Gift is a surprisingly funny, multi-award winning drama that tells the story of a Canadian World War II veteran’s reluctant return to Normandy, France, to find the grave of the brother who never came home. While visiting the shores of Juno Beach, Jake encounters Isabelle, a precocious 10-year old from the local village. Isabelle’s inquisitive nature and charm challenge the old soldier to confront some long-ignored ghosts — most notably, the war-time death of his eldest brother, Chester.
What makes this play remarkable is the fact that Mackey plays not only Jake and Isabelle in this one-woman show, but also two other characters — Grande-Isabelle, who is 70 (Isabelle's grandmother); and Susan, a Canadian teacher in her 30's.
“The heart of Jake's Gift is really about the legacy and importance of remembrance; it affects all ages,” said Mackey. “I am constantly surprised and delighted at the age range of the audience that comes to our show. Most nights, we truly have every generation represented. We suggest the play is suitable for age 10 and up, which is the same age as the character of Isabelle in the play.”
Mackey has been touring and performing her play across the country since it first opened in 2007, taking her show to 185 communities across Canada — to every province and two territories. This past Oct. 5th marked her 655th performance of Jake's Gift.
Mackey said even at a young age, she knew she wanted to eventually create something as a ‘thank you’ to all veterans for their service.
“When I was 12 years old I saw a documentary on WW2,” she recalled. “It was the first time I had ever watched anything about war, and I was so devastated by the images I was seeing. My father wanted me to turn off the television because I was getting too upset, but I told him I needed to watch.”
Mackey said that documentary taught her to truly understand what Remembrance Day was about.
“Ever since then, I have had a strong interest in Remembrance and history and every Remembrance Day — no matter where I am — I find my way to the local cenotaph.”
Mackey had hoped to go to Juno Beach in 1994 for the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, but as she was a student, she couldn't afford to go.
Then, in 2002, she started writing a story about three brothers from the prairies, who had joined (the military).
“In the original story, Jake wasn't a veteran because he had failed the physical after injuring his knee training to be a jockey and couldn't go, but he always wanted to honour his brothers service,” explained Mackey. “I wanted to build on that story and one night in the fall of 2003, I heard…about the 60th Anniversary of D-Day ceremonies that were being planned in Normandy. I knew that was where I would find the rest of my story.”
Mackey called Veterans Affairs, got her name put on a guest list, and headed to Normandy for six days.
“My partner and director, Dirk Van Stralen, said to me, ‘You know, as soon as you start talking to all those veterans, Jake will become a veteran. too.’ He was absolutely right. I had not made Jake a veteran in my original writing because I had no idea what that was like or how to write from that voice. Over those six days in Normandy I interviewed as many veterans as I could. I pieced together their stories and my own experiences there and started weaving it all together.”
Mackey noted many of the veterans she met in Normandy have since become dear friends over the past nine years.
“I affectionately call them my ‘Band of 90-year old Boyfriends,’” she quipped.
After two years, she finally had a first draft of Jake's Gift ready in August 2006, but continued to work on it more that fall. In December that year, she read it to a few friends, one of whom was a WWII veteran named Antony Holland.
“Antony has been an actor and theatre director for 74 years,” said Mackey. “He is now 93 years old and is still going strong. Following that reading, Antony immediately asked me to perform the play at his Theatre on Gabriola Island. We set a date for January 2007 and so our touring began.”
Mackey said there have been many memorable moments during her time spent touring the play, but there is one moment in particular that stands out for her, when she was performing the play on at The Barney Danson located in The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa on June 6th, 2009 — the 65th Anniversary of D-Day.
“The first two rows of the theatre were filled with WWII veterans,” she recalled. “Having the show in a theatre that was named after Barney Danson was pretty magical too. Barney was a D-Day veteran with the Queens Own Rifles. The QOR's were the first to land in the section of Juno Beach that the character of Jake talks about in the play, and he also mentions that regiment specifically.”
To celebrate after the show, the cast and crew opened a bottle of wine Mackey had bought in Normandy at the 60th Anniversary of D-Day.
“I had been saving it for a very special occasion, and that was certainly it.”
Overall, Mackey said ‘Jake's Gift’ is her ‘love letter’ to all veterans, and is her way of saying ‘thank you’ to a generation of men and women who sacrificed much for the greater good.
“The play is dedicated to all servicemen and servicewomen past and present.”
Mackey said she also plans on touring her show for some time to come.
“I've promised many of my 90-year old boyfriends and girlfriends that I will continue to tell their story long after they’re gone,” she said. “I hope to do just that. I still love performing the show, and plan on touring for as long as there is interest.”
To reserve your tickets to the show, call the O’Brien Arts Centre at 896-4027. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and $10 for students. Tickets will also be available at the door, but people are encouraged to reserve, so as not to miss out.