Fifteen years ago, Julia Mackey found a maple leaf-shaped card leaning against a Canadian soldier’s gravestone in the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in Reviers, France.
The card was written by a Canadian boy named Danny Brown, and it was lying on the grave of Canadian Chester Hebner. Hebner, who was from Riding Mountain, Man., was a gunner with the Royal Canadian Artillery who died July 11, 1944, at the age of 28.
This little card, along with the veterans she met and befriended, inspired Mackey to write the play Jake’s Gift.
While visiting Normandy for the 60th anniversary of D-Day in June 2004, Mackey, who lives in Wells, attended many ceremonies, walked the coastline and interviewed dozens of veterans who had returned for the occasion. The experiences of the veterans, her own discoveries and a lifelong interest in Remembrance Day led to the development of the play at The Sunset Theatre in Wells in August 2006.
Jake’s Gift, which is written by Mackey and directed by Dirk Van Stralen, is a multiple-award-winning play about a World War II veteran’s reluctant return to Normandy for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. While revisiting the shores of Juno Beach, Jake encounters Isabelle, a precocious 10-year-old from the local village. Isabelle’s inquisitive nature and charm challenge the old soldier to confront some long-ignored ghosts, most notably the war-time death of his eldest brother, Chester. At its heart, Jake’s Gift is about the legacy of remembrance and makes personal the story behind one soldier’s grave.
“It’s about a full circle of life, and Jake’s journey is really about kind of going back and taking a final journey,” said Mackey. “The essence of it is he goes back to find his brother’s grave; it’s something he’s been avoiding doing for 60 years, and he goes back. His other brothers have died now; there were three brothers who served in the war, so he’s the only surviving member of his family, and he goes back to find his brother’s grave, and it is the first time he’s been back since the Second World War.
“Isabelle, the young French girl who lives in the town he helped liberate, she becomes obsessed with these returning soldiers, and she kind of tries to befriend him. Initially, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with her, but eventually, it really becomes about their friendship and how she helps him deal with the loss of his brother and encourages him to have this graveside conversation, which is really about forgiveness and guilt and survivor’s guilt, but it really is a catalyst for him. That conversation is a cathartic moment where he realizes that what he did during the war was important. I think, just like many soldiers that I met there, he just didn’t want to talk about it ever, so this little girl has enabled him to talk about it, and he sees the good in that because it enables her to promise to remember — and that is really what the essence of the play is about, the legacy of remembrance.”
Since 2007, Jake’s Gift has gone on to play at festivals and theatres in more than 250 communities across Canada, as well as international stops to Washington State, the U.K. and in France for the 70th and 73rd anniversaries of D-Day.
Mackey and Van Stralen are heading back to Normandy this year to perform the play for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, 15 years after the first trip that inspired it all. Mackey is performing Jake’s Gift in French and in English at several venues between June 1 and June 10, including the Juno Beach Centre.
With Jake’s Gift, Mackey and Van Stralen’s production company, Juno Productions, has been giving back to veterans’ organizations as well as ensuring people learn about and remember Canadians’ service on D-Day and during the Battle of Normandy.
In the summer of 2010, Van Stralen created a set of three Jake’s Gift buttons, each pertaining to a theme within the play. Since that summer, Juno Productions has sold these button packages at their performances, and 100 per cent of the profits have always been donated back to the Legions of the communities in which they perform. To date, the company has raised over $50,000 for Poppy Trust Funds and Legions across Canada.
Juno Productions also works closely with the Canadian Fallen Heroes Foundation, a non-profit organization started by Canadian veteran Mark Norman. The goal of the foundation is to create a memorial plaque for every Canadian killed in the line of duty from the Boer War to Afghanistan. In 2011, Norman saw a performance of Jake’s Gift and asked Juno Productions to donate a beautiful print called Fallen Hero to the Legion in each community they perform in. The presentation is always made following the show to a local Legion representative.
To learn more about Jake’s Gift, visit jakesgift.com.