Special to The Record
Julia Mackey and her actor-director husband Dirk van Stralen are familiar with the charms of the Comox Valley, including its foremost theatre.
“I think we first went to Courtenay in 2008 and just absolutely loved it. It’s been on our wishlist to go to the Sid Williams, so we were just thrilled when they called us,” says the resident of the small, artsy Cariboo community of Wells.
Mackey, accompanied by van Stralen, will perform her emotional, one-person play Jake’s Gift on Nov. 13.
It’s the fictitious tale of a Second World War veteran from Canada who reluctantly returns to Normandy for the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Unwilling or unable to speak about what he witnessed there, Jake meets a precocious French girl who starts to bring him out of his shell-shocked shell.
Mackey got the inspiration to write Jake’s Gift when she attended 60th anniversary ceremonies in Normandy in June 2004.
“I went there originally because I had been writing a play about these three brothers from the Prairies and their connection to the Second World War,” Mackey explains in a telephone interview.
At an impasse writing the story, she heard about the 60th anniversary.
“I had one of those gut instincts that this is where the rest of the story is.”
After getting accreditation and arriving in Normandy, “I spent a week interviewing as many Jakes as I could find. The play is really a love letter of thanks to those veterans.”
Jakes is her own term for war veterans.
She expresses surprise about the enduring success of her creation.
“We thought maybe if we were lucky we would get to do this show in some solo-performance festivals or some fringe festivals, and here we are 12 years later and we’re still touring. It’s been an incredible dozen years.”
Since 2007, she has presented the multi-award-winning play to more than 230 communities across Canada as well as stops in Washington State; Tiverton and Birmingham, England; and in Normandy for the 70th and 73rd anniversary of D-Day.
It wouldn’t be the same and possibly wouldn’t exist without the interviews Mackey did with dozens of Canadian, British and American veterans.
“I’d go up to them and … introduce myself and thank them for their service, and then ask them what it was like to be back in Normandy and what their experience was 60 years earlier.”
The responses differed greatly.
“Some of them were very open with me and some of them were more closed. All of them were very generous with their time.”
Jake isn’t based purely on any one of these veterans.
“His storyline is very much a combination of the interviews I did, my own experience being there as well as one veteran, in particular, I became very close to. He was an artilleryman and one of the first veterans I interviewed there. A lot of what Jake says in the play are direct quotes from Fred; Fred Rogers was the name of the veteran.”
She underestimated the effect the trip to Normandy would have on her.
“I knew it was going to be emotional … but I truly had no concept of how emotional it would be,” she states, momentarily choking up.
She and van Stralen hope to return to Normandy in 2019 for the 75th anniversary with their production, which is available in English and French.
Mackey performs Jake’s Gift on Nov. 13 at the Sid Williams Theatre in Courtenay as part of the 2018–2019 Blue Circle Series.
For event details and tickets, visit www.sidwilliamstheatre.com, phone 250-338-2430 or visit 442 Cliffe Ave.