On the northeast tip of North America, on an island called Newfoundland, a community came together in the wake of tragedy, and the lives they touched were never the same. From their kindness, the world was blessed with one of the most beautifully touching and life-affirming little musicals. Come From Away tells a less often heard story of 9/11: about the 38 planes that were diverted to the small town of Gander, nearly doubling the town’s population with “come from aways,” the passengers of those planes from all over the world, for five days while the US airspace remained closed, and how the Newfoundlanders opened their doors and their hearts to these strangers. The show was created by husband and wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who interviewed locals and returning passengers on the tenth anniversary in 2011.
In the spirit of a musical about community, Come From Away is very much an ensemble piece of interwoven vignettes based on the real experiences of passengers and locals: Stories like those of Nick and Diane (James Kall and Christine Toy Johnson), a couple who met in Gander; of Beverly Bass (Marika Aubrey), the first female captain of an American Airlines commercial plane; of the Kevins (Jeremy Woodward and Ali Momen), a couple on the brink of breaking up; of Bonnie (Kristen Peace), the spirited and stubborn president of Gander’s chapter of the SPCA who cared for the non-human plane passengers, including a pregnant bonobo; and of Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas), whose time in Gander was spent trying to find the whereabouts of her son, a New York firefighter, and her friendship with local no-nonsense schoolteacher Beulah (Julie Johnson).
A small cast covers multiple roles apiece, switching in and out of accents, jackets and hats (in fact, they make a gag of this when introducing the mayors of various nearby communities, all played by Kevin Carolan in various different hats and fake mustaches).
There is no lead in the show, but there is a clear standout in Aubrey as Beverly Bass. One of the most memorable moments in the show is her big number, “Me and the Sky,” much of which is a verbatim recount of Sankoff’s and Hein’s interview with the real Beverly Bass on her career and the struggles she encountered in such a male-dominated profession. The number is made all the more powerful as the other women in the cast join in, each donning their own pilot hat as the women for whom she blazed a trail. Aubrey also earns laughs by doubling as Annette, a hopeless romantic teacher with a wild imagination.
Another standout in the cast includes Carolan as Claude, the mayor of Gander, who exudes a sort of folksy charm as he leads the town through crisis-, whether it’s converting the hockey rink to the world’s largest walk-in refrigerator or swearing in come-from-aways as honorary Newfounlanders in the Screech In, a ceremony that involves taking shots and kissing codfish.
The cast is rounded out by James Earl Jones II as Bob, a New Yorker skeptical of all this Canadian kindness who earns laughs in his recounting of being asked to round up the neighbors’ barbeques and being offered a cup of tea at every house, but also shines in his emotional return to New York, where the air is still filled with smoke; Harter Clingman as Oz, the local constable; and Julia Knitel as Janice, the local reporter on her first day at the station.
The set (designed by Beowulf Boritt) matches the slap-dash accommodations put together in mere hours to accommodate the 7,000 inbound passengers, with mismatched chairs and tables forming an airplane cabin or a Tim Hortons or the local legion hall – a simple enough set (along with simple enough costumes befitting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, designed by Toni-Leslie James) that I have to think once the rights are made available, this could become a community or school theater staple. Christopher Ashley’s direction further highlights the theme of community by building into the staging support amongst the cast: everyone sets chairs or costume pieces for each other throughout to make those quick character changes possible.
If you’re looking for a spectacle, Come From Away is not that show. What it offers instead is a community that welcomes you in just like it did for the plane people. There are a few Newfie inside jokes, but you feel like you’re in on the joke. In just 90 minutes, from the opening bodhran to the final flourish of the band’s exit music (the band truly gets the final bow here), you start to feel like part of the community too, no cod-kissing required.
The natural concern for any show concerning 9/11 is that it will just be too sad. While Come From Away does, naturally, have its tear-jerking moments, it is, on the whole, a joyful show. It showcases kindness and hospitality in the wake of tragedy. It runs the gamut of human emotions; you laugh as much as you cry. It celebrates the human spirit in a way that can touch even the most cynical. At a time when the worst of humanity is so prevalent, when people are so divided, when things seem so hopeless, Come From Away is the musical embodiment of a warm hug and a whispered reminder that the world isn’t as bad as it seems and that people are fundamentally kind. We all need that reminder sometimes.
The National Tour of Come From Away runs through February 26 at PPAC. For more information, go to ppacri.org