The battle scars you can’t see

Jake’s Gift is an authentic, moving portrait of a Second World War veteran struggling with survivor’s guilt


11/11/2010 3:29 AM

A hit at the 2009 Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, this one-woman play lives up to its hype.
Written and performed by Julia Mackey, Jake’s Gift peeks into the life of a Second World War veteran who reluctantly returns to the beaches of Normandy, France, for the 60th anniversary of D-Day. It’s the first time he’s been back since the 1944 battle that claimed the lives of hundreds of young men, his older brother among them.
Now a frail widower, Jake is a cantankerous old coot whose crabby exterior belies an inner vulnerability that begins to emerge after a chance meeting with 10-year-old Isabelle, one of the local school children tasked with maintaining the graves of the fallen soldiers at the nearby cemetery. Raised on stories of wartime loss told to her by her grandmother, with whom she lives, Isabelle understands the sacrifices made by those who liberated her village, even if she can’t quite grasp why all the adults are so sad. Wide-eyed and inquisitive, she’s far more excited by the ceremonial pomp that accompanies the D-Day ceremonies.
With minimal props and virtually no set, Mackey commands the stage and holds her audience rapt with the power of a good story — one that, perhaps surprisingly, has less to do with war than it does with universal themes such as love, loss, grief and regret. This play is not a history lesson (in fact, very few details about that fateful June day are offered), nor is it an exercise in rah-rah patriotism; as Jake himself says, he and his brothers didn’t join the army out of love for their country or its military mission — they enlisted for "hot meals, trips to Europe and a shiny pair of boots."
Instead, Jake’s Gift reveals itself to be a moving character sketch of a man finally coming to terms with the guilt he feels for surviving when so many others did not.
Demonstrating some impressive acting chops, Mackey effortlessly switches between various characters as they interact with each other, transforming herself using nothing more than speech patterns and physical mannerisms. Jake — whose sentences are peppered with "God damns" and "What in the hells," often to great comic effect — is instantly identifiable by his palsied arm, his grunts and his slow, shuffling gait. In one scene, we watch for what seems like minutes as he struggles with the simple act of putting on a jacket; the indignities of old age effectively conveyed through actions, not words.
In contrast, Mackey’s Isabelle embodies the boundless energy, innocence and insatiable curiosity of youth. Unable to sit still and truthful as only children are — when asked if she can keep a secret, she replies, "not really" — her emotions are genuine and palpable.
While little details make the story come alive and provide intermittent comic relief — Isabelle’s obsession with the Burlington Teen Tour Band, for example, all the way from the exotic locale of Ontario, Canada! — it’s what’s left unsaid that gives Jake’s Gift its poignancy.
Respectful and honest, this is an authentic, moving portrait of one veteran and his ghosts. Bring Kleenex — you’ll need it.

Five Stars
Manitoba Theatre Centre
Until Nov. 20,
Tom Hendry Theatre Warehouse