October 24 to November 19, 2011
There is a saying that almost right is generally much worse than totally wrong. The idea being that totally wrong can be dismissed and forgotten whereas almost right nags at you for the fact that it could have been better. Lunchbox Theatre’s one woman show, Jake’s Gift, falls into the almost right category on every note. Whether it’s the performance, staging or script, the play marginally misses the mark making it a frustrating play to watch.
The story takes place in Normandy in the lead up to the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Here we meet Isabelle, a 10-year-old French girl who has “the most important job in the world” of taking care of the soldiers who fought there during the war. Through a conversation with her Grandmama we learn that Isabelle is a precious girl who knows quite a bit about the war and how Canadians liberated the area. We also learn that she is very excited to take part in the 60th anniversary planned celebrations and is even more eager to meet the Canadian war veterans who have come over to France to take part in the ceremony. Isabelle spots an old man named Jake looking out to the water from Juno beach and runs over to introduce herself. The two strike up a conversation and soon enough Isabelle has charmed her way into the old man’s gruff exterior through her inquisitive but sweet nature. Enough so that Jake begins to tell her about his own time in the war and how his eldest brother Chester died and is buried in Normandy. Jake has never visited his brother’s grave and it is clear from the outset that Jake has some unresolved feelings or issues about Chester’s death. Through the relationship he forms with Isabelle, Jake is able to face those ghosts and say a proper goodbye to his brother before returning home.
All the characters in the play are performed by Julie Mackey, and this is the first and most obvious instance of the almost right issue. Isabelle and her Grandmama are called upon to speak throughout the play with a French accent, but instead what we get is an almost French accent. Or more specifically a sometimes French accent. Grandmama only utters a few lines so the brogue is fairly easy to maintain, but with Isabelle’s co-starring role in the production we are presented with many lines that swing in and out of the accent and sometimes into another country entirely. The effect is dialogue that feels amateurish and at times lazy.
Equally as disruptive was Mackey’s physical portrayal of Isabelle who she plays in an overly boyish manner with lots of odd jerky movements that I suppose was meant to represent a child’s unselfconscious body language. The effort felt forced and distinctly like it was an adult trying very hard to behave in a childish manner.
Mackey’s performance as Jake is much stronger and a wonderful portrayal of a tough on the outside old veteran who is really a softie on the inside. She nails the old man’s way of taking and moving so well that it’s not hard to believe that she really is a 70 plus year-old man. My only gripe about Mackey’s performance of Jake is that the one –armed shake that she so beautifully maintains throughout the play and his shuffling, limping walk completely disappear when Jake shows Isabelle how he can dance. It’s a minor thing, but it was enough to take me away from the spell of the acting and instead see the actor.
The writing, which was also done by Mackey, had moments of lovely poignancy that were unfortunately interrupted without fail. Jake’s monologues explaining his wartime experience, his time alone at the ceremony and his long overdue graveyard chat with his brother were totally engrossing and emotionally wrenching. However, every time we were treated to this wonderful writing it was cut way too short by the reappearance of Isabelle into the scene, breaking the spell and once again giving us her weird accent, awkward movement and uninspired dialogue. And if wasn’t just the scripting that made Isabelle’s reappearances into the scene or conversation feel disruptive. Dirk Van Stralen’s direction has Mackey make lightning quick character switches or jarring character entrances that feel almost slapstick and totally out-of-place with the story line.
The more the play went on, the more I wished they would slow the transitions down or better yet get rid of Isabelle altogether and let Mackey tell Jake’s story as a monologue so that we could enjoy the strong writing and acting that seems to be reserved only for his character. That would have been the best gift Jake could have given us.
For the guys – Mackey has you guys nailed – her performance as an old veteran is excellent. It almost makes up for the hackneyed plot and weak co-character. MAYBE SEE IT
For the girls – Sure watching a young girl relate to an old grandfather-type character tugs at our heartstrings, but it’s been done better. Focus on Jake and you’ll get a story worth seeing. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional audience – Decent one-woman show that throws emotional punches without demanding or taking too much out of you. SEE IT
For the theatre junkies – The one strong characterization does not make up for the weaknesses in the acting, plot or direction. SKIP IT