On the 60th anniversary of D-Day, we meet Isabelle, a ten-year-old girl with “the most important job in the world” who lives in Normandy. She’s vivacious, genuine, and almost instantly lovable as she shares her excitement for the arrival of veterans to Juno Beach. Despite her obvious enthusiasm, Isabelle’s grandmother wants her to leave the veterans in peace. But of course she disobeys and rushes off to meet Jake, a newly arrived foul-mouthed Canadian who hasn’t stepped foot on Juno Beach since that fateful day.
Jake’s Gift shows us the development of a strong friendship between Isabelle and Jake over his brief stay in Normandy. Jake’s storytelling takes us on a journey from his decision to enlist, to the fun he and his brothers had in dance halls, to how he’s coped with the traumas of war since returning home. Meanwhile, Isabelle’s comments show us the gratitude, honour, and love that consume survivors of the war and their families. This is a beautifully-written show full of compassion, respect, and understanding of everyone affected by war.
What impressed me most about Jake’s Gift was Julia Mackey’s acting. She plays every character in this show and showcased an exceptional gift for physicality as she portrayed the stooping, shaking, slurring Jake with authenticity and dignity. Constantly switching from a grumpy, impatient old man to a joyful, bubbly child without reducing either to caricatures can’t be easy but Mackey does so effortlessly, all the while bringing interesting dimensions, complexity, and sensitivity to these characters.
What makes this show extra-special is how Mackey’s writing refuses to be mired by tragedy. There are definite moments of fun and joy in this show, like when Isabelle proclaims her love of maple leaves or when Jake shows off his dance moves. Even the highly emotional end scene tempers its poignancy with a sweetness that’s hard to deny. Ultimately, this show is not just about the dark experiences in our past but about the love and hope that drive us through.
Jake’s Gift is a touching tribute to our veterans and a must-see for all Canadians. The afternoon I attended, it quickly received a standing ovation and I doubt there was a dry eye in the room. Like the infamous poem In Flander’s Field, Jake’s Gift is powerful and moving because it shows us the simple, human side of war. It was a true pleasure experiencing the magic of this show, which has quickly become one of my favourites of 2015.
But that’s just my opinion and I’d like to know what you think. Did Jake’s Gift make you smile, frown, laugh, or feel nothing at all? Which perspective on war and its aftermath did you find most engaging? Is this truly a new classic? Join the discussion in the comments below.
Jake’s Gift is presented by The Great Canadian Theatre Company. It runs now through November 15th with special performances in French on November 10th and 12th. Visit their online box office for show times and how to buy tickets.