If you haven’t met Jake and Isabelle, you get your chance on Sept. 8. They will be at the Sunset Theatre up the road in Wells. If have already met them, they would love to see you again, through the eyes of Julia Mackey.
Mackey, the award-winning local actor-writer-director-producer is one of the Cariboo’s most prominent arts figures, and when you live in the arts-centric Wells neighbourhood, that is saying something significant, surrounded as she is by painters, musicians, performers, sculptors, photographers, writers and creators of all sorts.
She and creative/life partner Dirk Van Stralen are the operators of the Sunset Theatre, and that’s where Jake and Isabelle will come out on stage for a rare visit. They are the two utterly different characters inside the play Jake’s Gift that Mackey miraculously embodies, flipping from one – a precocious 10-year-old French girl – to the other – a gruff elderly Canadian veteran of D-Day.
“At its heart, Jake’s Gift is about the legacy of remembrance and makes personal the story behind one soldier’s grave,” Mackey said of the play’s plot.
What is less succinct to describe is the place of Jake’s Gift in the national pantheon of theatre. What started as a fledgling one-hander stage project in the Sunset Theatre’s first Exploration Series (a chance for development given to upstart shows) back in 2006 is now a Canadian powerhouse beloved across the country and across the border as well. It is a piece synonymous with Remembrance Day, D-Day, but any occasion in any town large and small from coast to coast.
On Saturday, Mackey will ease into the clothes and postures of Jake and Isabelle for the 1,066th time on a public stage.
“I have yet to feel frustrated, or ‘here we go again’,” said Mackey about being attached for so long to such a signature piece of theatre. “For sure, I am not interested in 9 a.m. school shows anymore, I want the kids to come to the theatre in their community to see the show. I know it’s important for kids to see the show, but I also think it’s important for them to see it in their arts centres within their own communities. But in terms of the actual performance, I have never been at the point of not wanting to do the show.”
Besides, who wants to cry at 9 a.m.? As much as Jake’s Gift is a comedy, and it really is hilarious, part of the magic conjured by Mackey is the heartache and pride and grief and joy all cooked into this delicious meal. Tears are a natural part of the play’s evocations. Mackey said even director, Van Stralen, still catches himself falling back under that spell again, sometimes.
“Dirk often says ‘I have no business crying, now that we are past a thousand performances. What moves me is watching people watch the story for the first time and their emotional reaction.’ I am that way as well. What moves us is when others are moved,” she said.
And audiences are moved in many different ways. One she has noticed is the way the play stimulates people’s memories and impressions of the Second World War.
“There are so many families that have a connection to that war, and the legacy is just massive. A million people joined up, so that has a massive impact on family history, and I always look forward to hearing from people after the show about who their Jake is, and why the story reminds them of their father or their grandfather.”
Another way, is, like the Isabelles of the world, when young minds are awakened to the realities of the lifestyle they get the privilege of living, thanks to those who marched into terror on behalf of unborn generations even more than their own. One young student, a teenaged boy, came to her after a performance to thank her for the show, but then contacted her after the next Remembrance Day with something extra to say.
“He said ‘I just wanted you to know I was thinking about you and Jake today, and today for the very first time I went to a cenotaph, because of your story. I was moved by the sacrifices that you helped me understand. I will always do that now.’ And I get emotional when I think about that, knowing like that about how much art and theatre and sharing story can really create change in people. I didn’t intend for that, when I wrote the story, but I just think about that boy so often, and when I think about how important it is to share this story, and consider how lucky we are to live the lives that we live. There are many problems we need to fix in this country, for sure, but to have this relatively peaceful country to live in is not lost on me, and wasn’t lost on that young man.”
She is now closer to Jake’s age than she is to Isabelle’s, and that has necessitated a gradual change in her own physical approach to the two roles.
She notices, too, that society is on a trajectory in perception about the values that compelled all those Canadians, and more back home in support, who set out across oceans and continents to ensure extremism was stopped in its deadly tracks.
“I remember a World War II vet coming to the show in 2010 at the Arden Theatre just west of Edmonton. His brother Johnny was a D-Day vet and he landed D-Day Plus 6, or thereabouts. His name was Bud, and he died in 2019. And I remember he was politically and socially very much involved, and never at a loss for information or technology. He kept up. And he was so devastated by all the extremist things that were surfacing again and he said ‘this is what we were fighting, and it’s back. Was what we did worth it? Because now it’s back – the hatred, the racism.’ And I felt so sad when I heard him say that. And of course it was worth it, you guys did an incredible job, and made the world aware of the horrors of the holocaust, and so much more. To have that conversation was really sad, because of his discouragement about what he was starting to see. And that’s why we keep going with this story.”