Mackey’s amazing transformations bring war home

Emotional Jake’s Gift, powerful Out of Frame make for fascinating, thoughtful journey

By ELISSA BARNARD Arts Reporter |  THE CHRONICLE HERALD  | 15 May 2009

SuperNova Theatre Festival’s pair of one-person stories about war makes for a fascinating journey, one emotional, the other intellectual.

Jake’s Gift is writer-performer Julia Mackey’s award-winning, fictional drama inspired by her own visit to Normandy for D-Day’s 60th anniversary. Out of Frame is a new work by Dartmouth actor and Dal theatre graduate Charles Mancini in the style of "verbatim theatre" that uses the real words of American war photographer Warren Zinn.

Both male characters are haunted and the differing conclusions demonstrate a confidence in the rightness of the Second World War versus a pervasive uneasiness about the Iraq war.

In Jake’s Gift a Second World War veteran returns to the shores of Juno Beach on the 60th anniversary of D-Day in honour of his late brother, Marty, who always tried to get him to go to other anniversary events, and to visit the grave of his other brother, Chester, who died at Juno Beach.

The story is simple, the emotion restrained, and yet the audience is in tears, completely drawn in by Mackey’s amazing transformations and her convincing impersonation of a cussing, gruff — yet warm-hearted — vet as well as a precocious 10-year-old French girl.

The shifts are seamless, the vocal and physical presence of four distinct characters profound. The audience is right there, in France, with Jake as he searches for his dead brother’s grave and tells Petite Isabelle his story.

A colourful, forward person, Isabelle pushes him to accept loss. She takes on his history and teaches the audience the importance of the liberation of France and of remembrance.

This 2007 play, a fringe hit, on its way to the Magnetic North Festival and to tour Nova Scotia in October, is firing on all pistons and is a must-see. Mackey, after a standing ovation opening night, was emotional herself. "The East Coast has such a strong connection to the war and so many boys went and never came home and for so long I wanted to perform the show here," she said.

While not yet firing on all pistons, Out of Frame is a thought-provoking study into the enduring tragedy of war and is based on a CBC radio documentary and Mancini’s talks with Zinn.

Barely a week into the Iraq war, Zinn took a photograph of an American soldier carrying a wounded Iraqi boy. The image symbolized hope and was on the front cover of USA Today. The soldier — Specialist Joseph Dwyer — became famous. However, when Dwyer returned from Iraq, he spiralled downwards and took his own life.

Out of Frame is starkly staged with Mancini moving from light square to light square as he tells his chilling story. Behind him is a screen with a grainy, black and white video of a man representing Dwyer alone in his North Carolina apartment at night waiting for an Iraqi attack. He is like a ghost.

Zinn, who left journalism for law, is a thinker, looking for meaning, wondering if he is somehow complicit in the trajectory of Joseph’s life. He initially thought taking images of war was a hopeful act; it could change things like the iconic pictures from the Vietnam War that landed on people’s breakfast tables and led them to protest.

Both Zinn and Dwyer are now "outside the frame," and Zinn suggests most soldiers are; they come home physically intact but mentally traumatized. They can never really come home.

Mancini, as Zinn, describes the photograph in extreme detail but all we see is the shadowy Dwyer until the very end when the photograph is displayed crisp and clear, and in full colour, like a punch. This is a powerful ending.

Out of Frame, directed by Scott Burke with set, projection and costume design by Denyse Karn, produced by In Good Company, is an affecting piece that needs more structuring. Mancini needs more confidence in himself as an actor because his story is well worth telling.