“Is-a-belle necessary on a bike?”
Although humour was neither characters’ strong suit (knock knock jokes turned into an elaborate explanation), their chemistry was palpable and full of playful banter. This slightly somber, albeit completely heartwarming play brought everyone to their feet in a standing ovation. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as audience members alternated between vigorously clapping and discreetly wiping their eyes.
This multi-award winning, Canadian play, written and solely performed by Julia Mackey, was a testament to theatre in its finest form.
The story unfolds in Normandy, 2004, leading up to the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Cue Isabelle, a bold 10-year-old French girl with “the most important job in the world” – taking care of the soldiers who fought there during World War II. Through conversations with her grandmama, we begin to understand the gratitude ingrained, generation after generation, for the Canadian soldiers who liberated Juno Beach and the surrounding villages under German occupation.
An old man making his way across the beach interrupts Isabelle’s solo monologue. It doesn’t take her long to strike up a conversation with Jake, a war veteran returning to Juno Beach for the first time since 1944. Slowly, Isabelle chips away at Jake’s rough exterior and the walls he’s built up over the years begin to crumble as he reveals that he’s never returned to visit his eldest brother, Chester, buried in Normandy.
As I took my seat, I was increasingly curious as to how Mackey and her director, Dirk Van Stralen, would pull it all off. The stage was practically bare, save for a small side table and miniature suitcase at one end and a wooden bench and cardboard box at the other. What proceeded to unfold over the next 65 minutes was not what I was expecting (after having only ready the short synopsis) – it was so much better.
I admit I had my initial reservations about the credibility of it all which were quickly shut down by Mackey’s stellar adaptability and overall performance. This one-woman was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. She was constantly in character, seamlessly transforming back and forth from the energetic Isabelle to the feeble Jake.
Mackey’s portrayal of this elderly war veteran was something to behold as she mastered Jake’s stooped posture, hands riddled with tremors and an off balanced shuffle akin to old age. At times, her transformation was so believable it felt almost intrusive.
Mackey stuck around to share a few parting words with the audience. She began by thanking any veterans who may have been in attendance for everything they have laid on the line for our country. Simply having the opportunity to present her one-woman masterpiece to an Ottawa audience leading up to Remembrance Day brought a tear to her eye.
If you can’t make it out to the GCTC in the next two weeks to catch this truly inspiring play, then I hope you can take a minute or two of silence to pay tribute and thank the men and women who have lost their lives fighting for our country and to those that continue to fight for our freedom today.
After watching Jake’s Gift, all I can say is: Je me souviens.
Jake’s Gift is on at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (1233 Wellington St. W.) until November 15, 2015. Regular tickets range from $38 – $55 and can be purchased online or by calling the box office (613-236-5196). Click here for showtimes and info.