It was a drawing of a maple leaf lying on the grave of a fallen soldier that caught Julia’s Mackey’s eye.
In France to be a part of the 60th anniversary of D-Day in June 2004, Mackey had received permission from Veterans Canada to interview men and women about their experiences during the Second World War.
But it wasn’t until she took a stroll through the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in Normandy that a character came to life.
His name was Chester Hebner, and since the day she spotted his grave with the picture of the maple leaf lying atop it, many other stories and experiences have come to be a part of Mackey’s life and her award-winning play, Jake’s Gift, which comes to the Vernon Performing Arts Centre for the first time, Sunday.
Chester’s grave plays a central part in the play as it is the reason lead character, Jake, goes back to Normandy for the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
“I was amazed about the story of vets going back (to Normandy),” said Mackey, who after receiving permission from a high profile head of state, interviewed dozens of Canadian, American and British veterans at the D-Day anniversary. “I visited the beaches, walked around, talked to the vets and their families. I was overwhelmed by emotion. At that time, I didn’t know if it was going to be a play, a radio documentary…, but after I wrote it in the fall of 2004, these characters came out.”
The character of Jake is actually based on another veteran Mackey met while in Normandy, Fred Rogers, who unfortunately died before he was able to see Mackey’s finished product.
In the play, Jake is reluctant to return to France where during the war, his eldest brother, Chester, a talented musician, died in battle.
“He doesn’t want to remember,” said Mackey. “His other brother, Marty, goes back to (France) a lot, but to Jake, everyone close to him is gone, so he prefers to forget.”
But upon making the trip overseas, and revisiting the beach he landed on 60 years earlier, Jake encounters a young French girl who helps him see the light, so to speak.
“The comedy really comes out in these two people who tell it like it is,” said Mackey. “I think what I’ve seen is a lot of people have a Jake in their world, a story about loss and emotional experience for people.”
In chameleon-like fashion, Mackey not only plays the curmudgeonly 80-year-old Jake, but also Isabelle, the precocious 10-year-old from the local village whose inquisitive nature and charm challenge the old soldier to confront his long-ignored ghosts.
Isabelle’s grandmother and a Canadian teacher round out the four roles Mackey embodies.
“I knew the characters so well and I always wanted the challenge of doing a solo, multi-character piece,” she said. “It just came naturally.”
Under the direction of her partner-in-life and in art, Dirk van Stralen, Mackey has since taken Jake’s Gift all over Canada.
After two years of thinking about the concept, and then writing out the script, the play was initially workshopped at the Sunset Theatre’s Exploration Series in Wells, B.C., in August, 2006. After three months of further development, it was performed on Gabriola Island.
Juno Productions began touring Jake’s Gift in early 2007. Since that time, the play has received critical acclaim, and awards, at festivals and theatres across Canada.
“The great thing about this play is that it is straight forward, you don’t need a lot of tech support, so we have been able to show it in legion halls, and small community theatres across the country,” said Mackey.
With all the accolades and accomplishments, Mackey has no intention to end performing the roles she has become so attached to. After her performance in the Okanagan, she travels back to the Prairies to perform the play in rural Saskatchewan.
“I was talking to Dirk not too long ago on whether I still want to do this. I feel so passionate about telling this story, and hearing the veterans’ stories, that I plan to keep going as long as I can. All the other vets I have met since and have seen the play have connected to it and felt the story expresses a little of what they went through.”
And then there’s the real Chester Hebner.
Mackey has since learned a lot about the man whose grave she visited in Normandy seven years ago.
Upon returning to Canada, she searched for his family name through ancestry.com, and found that another person was also tracking down the family line. It turned out he was a relative, and his family lived in Calgary.
“They all came up to see the play when it was in St. Albert, and they brought a photo of Chester,” said Mackey who has since met Chester’s only living sister, Alice, in Calgary.
“She was able to see the performance when I was in Calgary last week. It was amazing to meet her. I’ve met 25 members of the family since then and have learned some incredible things. For example, in the play, Jake says Chester was an amazing musician, and it turns out in real life he was.
“This has really come full circle for me.”
Jake’s Gift takes the stage at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Sunday at 8 p.m. At 7 p.m., a special performance of Songs of the War Years by singer Sally Evans and pianist Molly Boyd will take the audience on a sentimental journey with musical gems from 1939 to 1945.
Tickets are $35/adult, $32/senior, $30/student and $5 eyeGO at the Ticket Seller box office in the centre. Call 250-549-7469 or order online at www.ticketseller.ca.