Normandy has a special place in the place the heart of Julia Mackey of Wells, B.C.
The region of northern France was the largest seaborne invasion in history in June 1944 when thousands of Canadian, American and British (alongside a small contingent of French) forces launched a military assault against the Nazis.
It was 60 years later when she visited it, walking the coastline, interviewing dozens of veterans, and finding further inspiration for the award-winning play Jake’s Gift that was developed at the Sunset Theatre in Wells.
Mackey has performed the one woman, one act play more than 1,000 times to audiences worldwide.
Jake’s Gift tells the account of a fictional Second World War veteran Jake and his reluctant return to Normandy for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. While in France he meets 10-year-old Isabelle and is challenged to confront aspects of his long-ignored past, including the death of his eldest brother, Chester.
A headstone for Chester Hebner can be found at the Bny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, where Mackey learned of his name.
She said she still keeps in touch with his family, who had attended a showing of Jake’s Gift ten years ago in Calgary.
Chester, she had learned, was in fact, a fiddle musician while in the play he is described as a promising young trumpet player.
“I’ve been performing the play now for 15 years,” Mackey said.
“I think it is something I’ll always feel connected to, and I’ll do the play for as long as I can.”
Mackey said it was a sobering experience to walk in the cemeteries of Normandy, where thousands of troops are buried and understand what sacrifice is about.
In 2019 she had returned for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, where she performed Jake’s Gift in English and French, paying tribute to hundreds of veterans she had met, most of whom have now passed.
“Most plays never get to have this kind of longevity, so I’ve realized how extremely lucky we are that people just keep feeling connected to this story,” Mackey said.
“We have people that come back to the play three, four times, and they always bring new people to see.”
Mackey believes many have been touched in one way or another by the First and Second World Wars, and other conflicts such as the war in Afghanistan.
She said the play’s themes of survivor’s guilt, forgiveness and gratitude are relatable to everyone.
Before arriving in Normandy in 2004, Mackey visited her father in England where she learned her grandfather, who had passed away before her birth, was on a naval minesweeper which crossed the English Channel on D-Day.
“I’m very lucky that my family survived the war, but there was heartache, I think, for my grandparents through that whole experience, and it’s a way for me to honour my grandfather too,” Mackey said of Jake’s Gift.
Touring of the play was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic for most of 2020 and 2021.
Mackey was able to perform it twice last year at the Sunset Theatre and it will return this month on Saturday, Nov. 6 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 7, starting at 2 p.m.
“Covid has been absolutely devastating to the performing arts sector,” Mackey said.
“So it’s really a wonderful thing to be able to get back to, and I’m just so grateful, and I hope that people will come from far and wide to come and join us this weekend. It’s going to be a special time for sure.”
Capacity is limited, and proof of vaccination is required.
For more information visit www.sunset-theatre.com or call 250-994-3400.