28 October 2010 | WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Alison Mayes | ★★★★½

Recently, my 13-year-old and I had a conversation about The Diary of Anne Frank. We talked about how one person's small-scale narrative can generate greater empathy and understanding than a recitation of staggering statistics.

That's the power of storytelling. It's at work in Jake's Gift, a small, evocative play that movingly communicates the Remembrance Day message through the simple bond that forms -- on a nearly empty stage -- between two strangers played by the same performer.

The one-hour drama, written and expertly acted by Vancouver's Julia Mackey, arrives with a boatload of accolades from the fringe-festival circuit. It has school shows, plus two public performances this weekend, at Manitoba Theatre for Young People before moving to MTC Warehouse for a Nov. 4-20 run.

Though it's recommended for ages 13 to adult, an audience of grades 5 to 8 clearly appreciated it on Wednesday. (It's peppered with mild swearing on the part of the gruff, working-class Jake, who uses "goddamn" as a kind of emotional armour.)

If you're old enough to have memories of the Second World War yourself, make every effort to see Jake's Gift. Take Kleenex. From the way the lyrics of a Vera Lynn standard are used to the weaving in of a few lines from In Flanders Fields, it's a deeply touching -- but never mawkish -- piece of theatre.

Jake is an 80-year-old veteran who has travelled to France alone for the 60th anniversary of the 1944 D-Day invasion. The crusty Canadian widower feels guilty that he has never returned to find the grave of his older brother, a gifted trumpet player whose life was cut short during the Battle of Normandy.

Isabelle is a lively, curious French 10-year-old who lives on the shore of Juno Beach. She has a strong bond with her grandmother, who was bereaved by the war, and takes a keen interest in the D-Day ceremonies.

When Isabelle meets Jake on the beach, her pesky questions eventually lead to a softening of his defences. Over the course of a few days, the open-hearted girl helps the weary soldier to lay his burden down. The veteran, in return, opens a window on his generation's quiet strength and forbearance.

Having both characters inhabit the same actor's body emphasizes the universality and continuity of the human journey. It brings home that the naïve boy who enlisted in Winnipeg is still there inside the bent old fellow with the stiff gait and trembling hands.

Mackey's rapid switching between the slightly scowling Jake and the fresh-faced girl is remarkable. One might quibble that the initial encounter between them goes on too long without action to break it up, with Mackey tending to shuffle repetitively on one spot.

One might also wish for more metaphorical resonance, but there are highly effective touches, like the way the Canadian maple leaf is represented by a human hand with fingers outstretched.

The wisdom of Jake's Gift is modest, its emotion honest and not overplayed. It's a very Canadian play, leavened with just-right touches of humour.

Mackey is especially superb in the wordless scene in which Jake slowly gets dressed in his uniform and pins on his poppy. "It means a lot when someone young understands," he says near the play's end.

That sums it up. Jake's Gift is an ideal vehicle for young and old to join in understanding and share remembrance.