Since Julia Mackey first created the one-woman show Jake’s Gift in 2006, she’s performed this salute to heroism more than 280 times.
“It’s up there now which is great,” laughs the Vancouver-based veteran actress now on an eight-week tour with a stop at St. Albert’s Arden Theatre Wednesday, March 17.
With her trademark humour, Mackey admits to occasionally mixing up the lines, “Which is not fun, but luckily the audience never notices.”
Jake’s Gift is a multi-award winning Canadian play about a Second World War veteran’s trek to Juno Beach for the 60th anniversary of D-Day to see the grave of his brother. While re-visiting the beach he landed on six decades ago, Jake meets Isabelle, a spunky 10-year-old from a local village who charms the old gent and nudges him into confronting some longstanding and ignored past ghosts.
Mackey’s own grandfather had served with the British Royal Navy as a minesweeper in the English Channel. However, when she was 12, her interest in war was indelibly sparked viewing a disturbing documentary about the Second World War that nearly prompted her father to switch channels. “It was the first time I realized what Remembrance Day was all about.”
Jake’s Gift is really the offspring of Mercy Wild, a play born from a character development workshop led by Ron Reed, artistic director of Pacific Theatre. At the workshop, Mackey created Jake, a crusty but funny and endearing guy she instinctively knew needed to be further fleshed out.
In June 2004, Mackey travelled to Normandy for D-Day’s 60th anniversary. She attended ceremonies, interviewed dozens of veterans and walked the coastline. The essence of Jake’s Gift is the passionate legacy of remembrance painted with memories, emotions and experiences of her weeklong stay.
“I knew there was going to be emotion. I didn’t realize how much emotion. I watched people move into the cemetery and find a father’s or brother’s grave for the first time. That was intensely emotional and exhausting.”
Initially Mackey did not know what to expect. However, the visible Canadian patriotism, which usually flies under the radar, unlike our flag-waving neighbours to the south, surprised her. “I wasn’t expecting so many other Canadians to be there. You couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a Canadian flag.”
Just strolling through the cemeteries was a draining experience. “I tried to imagine the loss at each grave. What would they have become? When you see them buried and they were so young. For me, it was important to recognize the sacrifice they made and in a sense the sacrifice the nation made. There were only 10 million people in Canada. There were one million volunteers and tens of thousands didn’t come home.”
But the anniversary was also an incredibly uplifting experience. Mackey learned the French were deeply appreciative of Canada’s role in the war and passed the history down to their children. “Veterans in Normandy were treated like rock stars. People would go up to them and thank them and children would cheer them on.”
After Mackey returned to Canada, she debuted Jake’s Gift at Victoria’s Intrepid Theatre in 2006 and started touring a year later. In 2008, the one-hour play was nominated the Edmonton Fringe Festival’s sleeper hit with its fine-tuned mix of drama and humour.
“In essence it’s about how we deal with loss and forgiveness and loss of life, and how we deal with things we have no control over. It’s a story that’s very Canadian. It’s a story of hope.”
Jake's Gift<br />Wednesday, March 17 at 8 p.m.<br />Arden Theatre<br />5 St. Anne Street<br />Tickets: $28/adults; $23/students/seniors. Call 780-459-1542 or purchase online at www.ticketmaster.ca