06/05/2014 01:50 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:01 EDT

Julia Mackey's one-woman play commemorates Canada's role on D-Day in Normandy

REVIERS, France - Chester Hebner, whose remains are at the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery near this small village in Normandy, was a gunner with the Royal Canadian Artillery killed on July 11, 1944, during the D-Day campaign.

His name would probably have been remembered by only a few surviving relatives had Julia Mackey not spotted a small maple leaf cut-out propped up against his gravestone a decade ago.

Mackey never met Chester. She was born 23 years after his death.

Mackey is a playwright who divides her time between Vancouver and the small northern B.C. town of Wells. She has incorporated the 29-year-old soldier's background into a one-person play she has performed close to 700 times across Canada and as far afield as Birmingham, England.

The play, Jake's Gift, has been translated into French. Mackey, raised in Montreal, will be performing it in that language on June 11 in Bernières-sur-Mer, a town near Reviers, the location of another Canadian war cemetery.

The 90-minute, one-act play tells the story of Jake, a Canadian veteran who goes to Normandy's Juno Beach for the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004 to visit his brother Chester's grave. He meets a precocious 10-year-old French girl named Isabelle who befriends him despite his gruff manner.

Mackey plays all four parts — Jake, Isabelle, the girl's aunt and a Canadian schoolteacher named Susan who is also visiting the area.

"There really was a schoolteacher named Susan who was at the Bény-sur-Mer cemetery during the 60th anniversary ceremonies," says Mackey, who is on a sentimental journey back to the beach 10 years after her first visit.

"Her pupils back in Canada made cut-outs of maple leaves with their photos glued to them and a note of thanks to our veterans written on them. Susan gave them to veterans visiting the cemetery and also put them on various gravestones."

It was a maple leaf cut-out made by student Danny Brown that caught Julia's eye as she passed Chester Hebner's gravesite.

"The message Danny had written on it said: 'I think you're great for helping make Canada a peaceful country. Je me souviens.' After I got back to Canada, I tracked down the teacher and she told me all about her project."

She adds that Danny's message brought everything into focus on a quest that had caused her to visit Juno Beach in the first place.

"Years before, I took a three-week masked characterization workshop in Vancouver and the mask I chose to work with resembled an old man," Mackey recalled.

"By the time the workshop was over, I had created a story in my mind about three brothers from the Prairies, two of whom had fought in the Second World War. The third one, Jake, always felt guilty that a bad knee had kept him from going overseas."

The story stayed with her, and in the fall of 2003 she was watching an edition of The National on CBC-TV where anchor Peter Mansbridge mentioned the coming 60th anniversary commemorations in Normandy.

"I determined right then and there that I would go to the Juno Beach ceremonies and interview veterans to get the right voice for my characters," says Mackey.

"Once I had done that, Jake came alive and he, too, became a veteran who survived the war and returns 60 years later to visit his brother's grave for the first time."

Jakes's Gift has received a number of honours, including the Royal Canadian Legion Media Award in 2009. The citation on the award reads: "Your creation of 'Jake's Gift' is certainly a brilliant theatre production, emoting a true sense of understanding about sacrifice, valour and memories."

But the recognition Mackey says she most appreciates is the friendship she has made with so many veterans since staging the first performance of the play in a small theatre on B.C.'s Gabriola Island in 2007.

"It's been an incredible experience," she says. "I've met so many wonderful veterans. Those who served in the Second World War tell me I bring back a lot of memories, some good and some bad. But they really appreciate what I'm doing."

Upon her return to Canada, Mackey will gear up for a month's run of Jake's Gift throughout July at the Thousand Island Playhouse in Gananoque, Ont. Details on other play dates can be found at www.jakesgift.com.