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Liz Nicholls | EDMONTON JOURNAL | ★★★★½


Contrary to popular belief, it’s harder, not easier, to create dynamic theatrical experiences for people when their emotional alignment to the subject matter is already firmly in place before the curtain goes up. Classic eye-misters, whether of the ‘fatal disease’ or ‘war’ variety are like that; the Kleenex is a foregone conclusion.


That’s why this little gem of a production, replacing Blast! in the program, is such a surprise. Its setting is the return of Canadian vets, now old men, to France for the 60th anniversary of D-Day, where so many of their generation were lost. There can’t possibly be anyone alive who isn’t deeply moved by that situation.


But Jake’s Gift, by and starring Vancouver’s Julie Mackey, doesn’t opt for artificial complexity, or try to do an end-run around pathos. It opts for simplicity. It’s unflashy, and so is its theatrical premise. Isabelle, a curious and opinionated little French girl, meets crusty octogenarian codger Jake. Gradually she learns his story: ordinary Canadian farm kid who enlists along with his brothers, goes overseas, and finds his life forever changed by the experience of war. And Isabelle’s life is changed, too, by meeting Jake and understanding the continuity with our shared past.


We also meet Isabelle’s grandma, a dignified Frenchwoman who has suffered losses too and who thanks Jake for the Canadian sacrifices in dulcet tones. That slightly unreal character, and a scene in which Jake gets to address his dead, are arguably the show’s only examples of pushing its luck. Jake is owed, of course; Grandma is another matter.


Isabelle and Jake do come to life, though, and memorably, in the hands of this dexterous actor. Hats, vocal inflection, adjustments in posture, and, voila, there’s Jake, spry in the creaky way that certain old people have, decisively unused to emotional reflection. Isabelle transcends the shrill-kid syndrome, endemic to adult actors, by charm that has certain reserves. She understands a lot. She doesn’t understand too much to not be flesh-and-blood.


It’s a homage to ordinary heroism, and you’ll shed tears. “I never did nuthin special,” says Jake, graveside. The whole play is a refutation of that.




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