Her characters have deepened over the years.
And, as many Second World War veterans are now dying, so, too, has her understanding for what they went through and the sacrifices they made for Canada.
Next Saturday, Julia Mackey will deliver her 1,000th performance in Jake’s Gift, a play she devised 16 years ago as part of a workshop put on by Pacific Theatre, in 2002.
Then, she and 11 other participants — including her husband, Dirk Van Stralen — were tasked by the company’s founding artistic director, Ron Reed, to create characters using masks.
By the end of their three-week intensive, Mackey had dreamed up an old man named Jake whose two brothers were war veterans.
But, despite Jake being part of a follow-up play, The Mercy Wild, featuring a few of the workshop characters, Mackey felt Jake hadn’t yet found his true voice.
Her answer came a few months later from CBC broadcaster Peter Mansbridge, who spoke about the upcoming 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings, in June 2004.
“I just had a gut feeling that’s where the rest of my story was,” Mackey recalled.
She rung up Veterans Affairs to confirm the D-Day ceremonies by the Canadian government were open to the public and registered as a guest.
In Normandy, France, Mackey got to work: She interviewed Canadian vets — some of whom had not travelled back to the scene since WWII — took photos and spoke to locals.
It took the Wells, B.C., resident two years to piece together Jake’s story.
She asked her mentor, Antony Holland — a WWII vet and the founder of Langara College’s Studio 58 — to take a look at her draft.
To her surprise, Holland offered only a few tweaks and a place in his Gabriola Theatre Festival in January 2007. “He was the first veteran to hear the play read through,” she said. “He is the one that said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
From there, Jake’s Gift snowballed, winning numerous awards and countless fans in English- and French-speaking Canada (it was translated in 2014).
It played at the Evergreen Cultural Centre in 2009 and, next week, returns for six performances; the Saturday matinee will mark Mackey’s 1,000 time playing the four characters, after a dozen years.
Her show, which is directed and stage managed by Van Stralen, follows a reluctant Jake as he flies to France for the 60th anniversary of D-Day at the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian war cemetery.
There, on the shores of Juno beach, he meets 10-year-old Isabelle from the local village, who stirs some memories for Jake including the wartime death of his eldest brother, Chester, a promising musician.
Isabelle, the narrator, encourages Jake to deal with his past.
Mackey said she based her story on six veterans from her Normandy research — one of them being Art Heximer on Ontario, who died Nov. 18.
Mackey said before she had the chance to perform the play in Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the landings, she learned she, too, had a D-Day connection: Her grandfather, who died before Mackey was born, was in the Royal Navy on a mine sweeper in the English Channel on D-Day.
“These veterans are now in their 70s and 80s and we are losing them very fast,” the British-born Mackey said. “I feel like the play becomes more relevant each year that goes by.”
As for the upcoming 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, next June, Mackey is writing grant applications to see her play staged in Normandy.
Her aim? “We want to get Canadian war stories out there on an international level…. We feel so lucky that people are so moved by the play and I just want to share the story. We’ve lost a lot of friends over the years. This is about our promise to remember them and to pass the torch.”
• Tickets to Jake’s Gift are $42/$32/$15 and available by calling 604-927-6555 or visiting evergreenculturalcentre.ca.
• Dec. 11 at 8 p.m., with a pre-show chat with director/stage manager Dirk Van Stralen at 7:15 p.m.
• Dec. 12 at 8 p.m.
• Dec. 13 at 8 p.m.
• Dec. 14 at 8 p.m.
• Dec. 15 at 3 p.m.
• Dec. 15 at 8 p.m.