Simple and Effective: “Jake’s Gift” at Pacific Theatre

I must confess I haven’t though much about Canada’s World War II veterans lately. When I do, I usually envision navy blazers, berets, senior citizens, and excruciatingly rhythmic elementary school recitations (“In FLANders FIELDS the POPpies BLOW…”). These thoughts aren’t really in my consciousness until November each year.

I don’t usually imagine a ten-year-old girl in Normandy, striking up a friendship with a curmudgeonly Canadian veteran who has travelled to France for the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

This is the premise of “Jake’s Gift”, a one-woman show created and performed by Julia Mackey. “Jake’s Gift” is playing at Pacific Theatre Wednesday to Saturday evenings (with a matinee Saturday) until April 16.

From an “acting technique” standpoint, Mackey is a delight to watch. What is interesting to me is that the character of Jake was originally discovered and developed by Mackey during an intensive Mask Characterization workshop offered by Pacific Theatre in 2002. Having experienced some mask training in my own BFA, it was exciting to see the possibilities for character and narration that can be found and shaped through this kind of work.

I have watched many one-person shows where much of the narrative is delivered through monologues, with the actor playing one or more characters. Mackey chose to manifest most of the story through dialogue, sometimes with up to three characters, switching from one character to another instantaneously. With such fast transformations, many actors would be tempted to rely on a prop or costume piece (i.e. hat vs. no hat, etc.) to indicate to the audience which character is speaking. Mackey did not need to do this. Posture, voice, inner rhythm, even the lines of Mackey’s face seemed to change depending on who was speaking. It was as if her body and face were a hand upon which Mackey could place any puppet. I did not need a costume change to tell me who was who. I saw each character (ten-year-old Isabel, her grandmother, the old veteran Jake): familiar, recognizable, and clear as day.

The exchange between Isabel and Jake is so good-hearted and amusing, and Isabel’s high spirits are so infectious, you are caught off guard by the expression of the loss that lives in the hearts of those affected by war. I, like many others born in Canada, am familiar with the story of the Second World War and our veterans’ contribution to the Allies’ victory. I am fortunately not familiar with the loss of a loved one, nor with the idea of deliberately putting my own life in danger.

Many performances involving the stories of Canada’s veterans (especially those performed in schools, as “Jake’s Gift” has been many times), stray into the dangerous area of sentimentality; superficially tugging at our heart strings but keeping us ultimately and comfortably disconnected from the subject matter. The story of Jake and Isabel is told so frankly, and so matter-of-factly, that I could not avoid being affected by it.

The long and the short of it is that whether they enlisted for king and country, or for “hot meals, a trip to Europe and a shiny pair of boots” as Jake did, many young people placed themselves in harm’s way, and many did not return. Families in Canada were left without a sibling, a parent, or a child. This part of our history as Canadians and it hasn’t felt so true or close to me in a long time.

Another loss addressed in “Jake’s Gift” is the loss of the WWII veterans themselves. As they grow older (and sadly begin to pass away), we lose the living connection to an important part of our history. In a memorable and lonely moment on the stage, Jake dons his navy blazer and Legion beret with trembling fingers, straightening up for a moment to salute like the hearty young soldier he once was. When watching, I did not see Mackey onstage, or even the character Jake. I saw my grandfather. I saw the men and women of the Legion in my home town in Saskatchewan, a generation of Canadians whose pride and strength and incredible sacrifice has been forced to yield to age and the passage of time.

The story Julia Mackey has created with “Jake’s Gift” is simple and accessible, short and sweet. It is neither for nor against war. The story just is, and its lack of complication did not diminish the experience for me. Mackey’s investment in the piece as a creator, an actor, and a person, is evident. To me, “Jake’s Gift” has a bittersweet spirit that serves as a gentle reminder that November is not the only time of year to remember the sacrifices of others, and to, as always, respect our elders, who have experienced moments in their lives we will hopefully never have to know.

“Jake’s Gift” runs until April 16 at Pacific Theatre. Tickets can be obtained at the Pacific Theatre Box Office through visiting their website or calling 604-731-5518. For more information about the play itself, “Jake’s Gift” has its own website, www.jakesgift.com.

Once again, I was able to attend “Jake’s Gift” through the generosity of the lovely Lois Dawson, author of the excellent Vancouver theatre blog, Lois Backstage. Thanks Lois!

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