Julia Mackey’s play, ‘Jake’s Gift,’ coming to Harbourfront Theatre Thursday
SUMMERSIDE — It’s a story inspired by Julia Mackey’s pilgrimage to Normandy, a trip she took almost a decade ago to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
© Photo by Tim Matheson
Julia Mackey as ‘Jake’ in a scene from her play, “Jake’s Gift,” which is being staged Thursday at Summerside’s Harbourfront Theatre.
There, she spoke with veterans, some returning for the first time where they waged war, fought for freedom and lost brothers and friends.
One veteran in particular, Fred, wove a story of loss that forever impacted Mackey and helped fully form a character she began to develop years earlier.
“He talked in general about his experience in being back and I spoke with him for about an hour and a half and had this amazing experience with him,” she said.
“He said to me ‘you give me your address and one of these days you might find something in the mail for you from me at no expense to you’.”
Weeks later, after she returned home, a box arrived at her home filled with photos, interviews and poems chronicling his experience.
“It is amazing and I still cherish them so much and that time with him,” she said, her voice breaking.
Her time in Normandy and the stories Fred relayed were so moving that the British Columbia-based writer and actor felt compelled to share it with fellow Canadians.
The end result is “Jake’s Gift,” a one-person play performed entirely by Mackey, with partner Dirk Van Stralen as stage manager and director.
The show is being staged Thursday at Summerside’s Harbourfront Theatre.
“The story really is about a veteran that comes back for the first time to find his brother’s grave and it is a little French girl that kind of pushes him to deal with his brother’s death,” said Mackey of the show’s premise. “She really kind of gives him a new lease on life and helps him get to the point where he can ask for forgiveness for not having come back to visit his brother’s grave. It is really about loss and how we help one another deal with loss, but also about the forgiveness.”
She added, “Survivor’s guilt is massive. One of the most heart-wrenching moments for me while in Normandy was watching these guys come into the cemetery for the first time and collapsing in front of the graves after finding the grave of their brother or friend. That guilt was so overwhelming for so many of them.”
The multi-awarding winning drama is remarkable in that Mackey plays not only the title role, but also the roles of Isabelle, the French schoolgirl; her 70-year-old grandmother, Grande-Isabelle; and Susan, a Canadian schoolteacher in her 30s.
“Initially, when I wrote it, I didn’t think I would play all four characters. I definitely knew I would play Jake because that was the character I created out of the workshop,” she said. “Because I wrote it I had such a strong sense of what each of the characters sounded like and I wanted the challenge to do a one-person show since I hadn’t done it before.”
Mackey has been touring and performing “Jake’s Gift” for audiences across Canada since 2007, taking the show to every province and two territories, performing it in 185 communities more than 650 times.
“I just love it so much. There’s a lot of comedy in the show as well. The characters have become so real to me now that it feels like I get to hang out with them every night, which is kind of a lovely feeling,” she added. “Also, what keeps us going is I am also aware now that so many of the guys that I met in Normandy are coming to the end of their life now and a lot of them have passed away. There is kind of a sense of urgency to tell their story before they are all gone.”
She’s amazed by the number of veterans who come out to each performance from various campaigns and the response they have to “Jake’s Gift,” a play she calls her thank-you to all veterans for their service.
“When I was about 12-years-old I saw a documentary on the Second World War and I remember being absolutely horrified by the images I was seeing. I remember my father was upset at how upset I was so he was going to turn it off and I said no, I have to watch this,” recalled Mackey.
“It was that documentary that instilled in me a sense of real understanding of Remembrance Day. Even at that time, I thought I wanted to create something as a thank-you to veterans and soldiers that hadn’t come back.”
At the end of Thursday’s performances, Mackey, as way to pay tribute to local veterans, will present a copy of the print, “Fallen Heroes” to a representative of the Summerside Legion.
There will be two performances on Thursday — at 12:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Veterans get in to the play free of charge.