Jo Ledingham  |  VANCOUVER COURIER  |  13 APR 2011

Jake’s Gift wrapped in history and emotion


Remembrance play charms, educates

Jake’s Gift, created and performed by Julia Mackey, has been seen by thousands of school children across the country. I took a pass when it was performed at the Cultch in 2008 (after touring B.C. and other parts of Canada). I missed it again at the Firehall and the Shadbolt Centre. I don’t know what took me so long to see this remarkable 60-minute jewel, but it had something to do with the subject: the meetings over a few days in Normandy between a 10-year-old French girl and a Canadian Second World War veteran returning for the first time to Juno Beach where his older brother was killed. I think I wanted to put that war behind me.

Amazingly, when Mackey went to the cemetery in the town of Bény-sur-Mer for the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004, she discovered that French schoolchildren were still assigned to “look after” soldiers, to “clean their rooms” and “water their gardens.” Translation: each child took care of several of the 2,048 burial plots—mostly fallen Canadians. The Second World War and the Canadian contribution to the liberation of France from the Nazi occupiers lives on in the hearts and minds of the French—even if Canadian kids know little, or nothing, about it.

If they’ve had the privilege of seeing Jake’s Gift, they know now.

The play grew out of an intensive three-week Pacific Theatre mask workshop that resulted in a masked production, Mercy Wild in 2002. Back then, Mackey created Jake, a grumpy, gravel-voiced bookie who had not served in the military but whose brothers had. After Mercy Wild, Mackey realized that Jake was beginning to take on a life of his own and thus began her research. She decided to make Jake a veteran and to attend the D-Day anniversary in Normandy where her next breakthrough happened when she created 10-year-old Isabelle, a composite, Mackey says, of several kids she encountered there.

And what a creation she is: a precocious, talkative, sparky little girl who, under the watchful eye of her “grandmamma,” drags conversation out of curmudgeonly Jake, hardly leaving him alone for a minute. Not put off by Jake’s “goddam” this and “goddam” that, she cheerfully keeps the questions coming. (He didn’t sign up out of patriotism, for example—it was wanting “the goddam boots” that led to him landing on “this goddam beach.”) Eventually, Jake begins to warm to persistent, effervescent Isabelle.

Mackey plays all the roles shifting from throat-clearing, shuffling Jake to irrepressible Isabelle, rocking back and forth on her toes, as well as Isabelle’s solemn grandmother. In one scene, Jake and Isabelle share a bench and simply by sliding back and forth on the bench, Mackey transforms herself into the two characters. It’s a charming performance and a riveting production directed by Dirk Van Stralen and lit by Gerald King on a very simple stage.

Special guest on talkback night was Anthony Holland, a Second World War veteran, founder of Studio 58 and described by Mackey as “the oldest working actor in the country” (recently turned 91), which led to Holland’s quick but good-natured correction, “the oldest working lead actor in the country.” Holland’s perspective on the war, where he saw action in North Africa, including Libya, was enlightening, and his early support of Jake’s Gift was critical in setting Mackey on this journey that has culminated in Mackey and Van Stralen recently winning the B.C. Touring Council’s 2011 Touring Artist of the Year Award.

Jake’s Gift may be short, but it’s long on historical and emotional impact, relevance and raw talent. The gift it gives is a light-hearted but never lightweight reminder that those who die in armed combat are never forgotten by those who loved them.

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