Bruce Mason | Nanaimo Bulletin | January 2007

Gabriolans blown away by a vet’s play, Jake’s Gift

Thirty-nine year-old actor/playwright Julia Mackey took Gabriola by storm last weekend with the world premiere of a one-woman show, based on her experiences during the 60th anniversary of D-Day, in 2004.

The buzz about Jake’s Gift was so great that island residents pleaded for encore performances.

“The response has been overwhelming and very supportive,” says Mackey, who has built up an active network that she describes as “a bunch of 80 year-old boyfriends across the country.”

The newest member of that elite group is legendary actor Antony Holland, who says: “Something quite extraordinary happened. I’m a veteran of the Second World War, and this play and its performance made a greater impact on me than all the memorial services I have ever attended.”

Mackey plays four characters in Jake’s Gift: the lead, a cantankerous octogenarian war vet, Isabelle, a precocious 10 year-old French girl, her grandmother, and a teacher from Ontario, who arrived in France with notes of thanks from her class.

Mackey recalls that she conceived of the play while washing dishes. “I had created the character of Jake years ago, but suddenly I thought of Isabelle – based on all the grateful French children I had talked with, along with many veterans from Canada, the US and Britain – and I instantly put down the dishes and started jumping around and writing things down.”   

Holland, an 86-year old thespian, director and educator has presented more than 200 plays at his Gabriola Theatre Centre. After two performances of Jake’s Gift he made an unprecedented decision to ask Mackey back for three more performances (January 26 - 28)

“I have no hesitation in saying that we witnessed the launch of a new Canadian play, which is going to reach the hearts of people all across this country and I wanted her back before she is swept away on a national tour,” he explained.

Mackey’s grandfather was a British sailor and as a child she was mesmerized by a television documentary on WWII and the Holocaust. Remembrance Day at her high school in Montreal she says, was “a very big deal.”

After missing the 50th anniversary, she was determined to visit France and Juno Beach where 14,000 Canadians joined 150,000 Allied troops to end the brutal four-year German occupation of Europe. On D-Day, June 6th, 1944 Canadians suffered 1074 casualties, including 359 killed.

“I contacted Veterans Affairs a year before the anniversary and got passes to every event, including some that were only open to special guests,” she recalled.

For eight days she immersed herself in conversations with veterans – with whom she has kept close contact – and the outpouring of thanks given to them, from generations of people who knew the war history of their own villages through an undiminished oral tradition. 

On Gabriola, retired university professor, Gary Prideaux, was in the audience for what he says is: “By far the best live theatre I have ever seen, extremely moving; the subject was dealt with in both a poignant and humorous manner, while not being overly melodramatic.

“Like most folks, I laughed, cried, and empathized because my uncle Carl – a simple, Chevrolet mechanic from Parsons, Kansas - survived D-Day. I was ever grateful to him, and spoke with him many times in my youth about his experiences,” Prideaux added.

“Anyone who is fortunate enough to see Jake’s Gift will gain a greater empathy and understanding of what D-day really meant to Canada and France and the world,” said Holland.

Mackey said that the experience of the audience is much like her own at the ceremonies in Normandy. She is contacting the Canadian Legion and veteran’s hoping to share Jake’s Gift with her “80 year-old boyfriends,” while there is still time.