The acclaimed and poignant production of Jake’s Gift — the creation of B.C.’s Julia Mackey — will be featured on two local Legion stages in April.
The Red Deer Legion will feature the show April 17th at 7 p.m. — tickets are $20 and are available from the Red Deer Legion front desk.
The Lacombe Legion will also be presenting two shows — April 21st at 7 p.m. and April 22nd at 2 p.m. Tickets are also $20 and are available at the Legion Lounge or by calling the Legion at 403-782-6441.
The story follows a Canadian Second World War veteran who reluctantly returns to Normandy for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. While revisiting Juno Beach, “Jake encounters Isabelle, a precocious 10-year-old whose inquisitive nature and charm challenge the old soldier to confront some long-ignored ghosts – most notably, the wartime death of his eldest brother, Chester, a once promising young musician,” notes the synopsis.
“This is our third return to Lacombe and Red Deer, and we are really excited about it,” explained Mackey during a recent chat. “Those people have become good friends — so it’s like both doing the show and visiting friends. Pretty awesome!”
At its heart, Jake’s Gift is about remembrance and it personalizes the story behind one soldier’s grave.
As mentioned, the play was written by Mackey, who also performs all four roles.
“Back in 2002, I did a workshop at a theatre in Vancouver that was called a masked characterization workshop. The purpose of the workshop was to not use a mask at the end, but just to use it to get to a character. By the end of the workshop, you would remove the mask and finally have a full-blown character.”
The mask she was working with looked like an elderly man, and one of the first exercises she did that week included an old uniform from the Second World War.
“I started to create this character and the storyline came to me pretty quickly of this guy Jake and his brother, and their connections to the Second World War,” she explained. “So I started to write this storyline.”
Following the workshop, she continued to build a larger story around Jake.
And then one night, she learned of the 60th anniversary of D-Day which was to take place in 2004.
Mackey knew she had to go to Normandy so she could further flesh out this fascinating character that was taking shape.
“I spent just under a week there interviewing as many veterans as I could,” she said. “It was intimidating, because even though I’m an actor, I’m really quite a shy person,” she added. “I did get used to it, and I have so much admiration and respect for veterans.”
She asked them about their experiences – some were very open; others were understandably quite reserved.
“I came home with hours and hours of recordings – it was amazing,” she explained. “I listened to all of those interviews, and I thought about my own experience there and how I was going to tell this story.”
It took time, but Mackey’s story was steadily taking shape as the months passed. Then, in 2006, the first draft of Jake’s Gift received a workshop performance at the Sunset Theatre’s Exploration Series in Wells, B.C.
“It’s really a story of Jake and Isabelle’s friendship,” explained Mackey. “She’s really the person who pushes Jake to have a kind of final graveside conversation with his brother. And really, he’s seeking forgiveness for never having been back there before.”
Jake is one of three brothers who went off to war — the oldest sibling, Chester, was killed overseas. The other brother, Marty, has just passed on.
So at this point, Jake is dealing with how Marty was always asking him to return to Normandy with him.
“Then he realizes he’s pretty much lost everyone who he has loved – his wife, his brothers,” she explained.
Another battle for Jake is with survivor’s guilt, something Mackey said he heard quite a bit about in her talks with veterans during that Normandy visit.
“So there’s a real journey there for him, where he realizes that it was a really good thing for him to come back.”
Jake’s story came from both Mackey’s imagination melded with the stories she heard during that unforgettable week in Normandy. “Quite a bit of what Jake says are actual, direct quotes from the interviews I did.”
Juno Productions has since toured Jake’s Gift to theatres, festivals, community halls, schools and Legions in more than 220 communities across Canada.
Mackey and director/stage manager Dirk Van Stralen have also staged the show to the U.S., England and to Normandy for the 70th Anniversary of D-Day – Mackey performed Jake’s Gift in French in a venue right on Juno Beach.
“It’s been an incredible gift to myself and to Dirk, my partner. We never in a million years thought that we would be able to create a piece of work that so resonated with people.
“One of the greatest compliments we have also received is when people say they feel like they’ve been whisked away to France – that’s a wonderful thing for us, and exactly what we want to do.”