Photo: Tim Matheson
Grumpy old man meets charming, precocious 10 year old girl. The two strike up an unlikely friendship. Girl, generally sunny but with a sensitive side, helps man deal with a burden from his past. Man enriches girl’s life. Each goes their separate way.
In the hands of a lesser artist, such a tale could be twee and trite. In the hands of playwright/actor Julia Mackey, it’s rich, true and deeply moving, a solo show that runs just 65 minutes but leaves you replete, wanting neither more nor less of the gift you’ve been handed.
The grumpy old guy is Jake, a Canadian Second World War veteran who’s journeyed to Juno Beach – his first, and reluctant, return visit since the war – for the 60th anniversary of D-Day. He’s doddering, impatient and emotionally stoppered yet proud, dignified and slyly humorous, a constellation of qualities that Mackey embodies as naturally as most of us breathe.
The girl is Isabelle. She lives in a village near Juno Beach and, with classmates, tends the graves of fallen soldiers. Respect for those who gave their lives so she could be free is an indelible part of her worldview, a view that’s emotionally mature in a way that sometimes children possess and that can give their elders, like Jake, cause for second thought.
Also occasionally present: Isabelle’s grandmother, a gracious woman whose seriousness stems from the terrible losses she suffered during the war.
To reveal too much more would be revealing too much. Suffice to say that Jake lost his eldest brother Chester in the war and both his wife and another brother named Marty more recently, that there’s unfinished business attached to Chester’s death, and that young Isabelle, by doing nothing more than being who she is, urges Jake toward resolution.
Mackey flawlessly handles all these transitions of character, of emotion, of scene including a touching one in which Jake, his dancing skills now arthritic but not vanished, is transported in his imagination back to the songs of Vera Lynn and the happy hours he spent in dancehalls while serving overseas.
There’s gentle humour throughout and Mackey, under the direction of Dirk Van Stralen, moves us from glistening eyes to laughter so fluidly we’re barely aware it’s happened. She has deep and loving respect for the characters she’s created. Nor does she hesitate to let their story provoke our national pride in Canadians’ role in the war and to prompt our gratitude for what our fathers and grandfathers – for wars have always been fought primarily by men – did in the name of freedom. Mind you, Mackey leavens the latter with reality when Jake explains to Isabelle the real reason he enlisted, and it had nothing to do with king and country.
Mackey has been performing Jake’s Gift since 2007, yet it remains fresh and relevant. This is the first time she’s presented the show in Ottawa, and its timing in the lead-up to Remembrance Day is opportune.
In an acknowledgement of our national identity, the Montreal-raised actor is performing Jake’s Gift in French at the end of the run. Choose your language, but don’t miss this show.
Continues until Nov. 15. Tickets: GCTC box o
At the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre/Great Canadian Theatre Company