Gander: a remote town with a once-important international airport on the island of Newfoundland in Canada, on the easternmost edge of the North American continent. Population: approximately 9000… except during the week following September 11, 2001, when the town unexpectedly found itself playing host to nearly 7000 additional people, visitors from across the globe whose planes (a whopping 38 of them) had been redirected there, away from big cities, for fear of more terrorist attacks. The calculated redirection of these planes to Gander was a Utilitarian move, to send the threat where there was “not as much to lose”, but the townspeople’s response was anything but. They prepared their community spaces, shared their resources, and opened their hearts and their homes, turning an event of unprecedented horror and tragedy into a magical week of humanity, oneness, and wholesomeness.
It sounds like an unthinkable paradox to make a feel-good musical about 9/11, but that is precisely what Come From Away is. It is an unlikely masterpiece: the grim subject matter, unpretentious set, small ensemble cast (about a dozen actors), and the sheer ordinariness of the characters (none of them traditionally glamorous or conventionally heroic), are not factors that tend to individually hold promise of a multi-award winning show. But these factors are knit together here with the generosity, authenticity and unassuming true heroism of the Ganderites. Bestowed with the beauty of truth, warmth, and simple human presence, the resulting show is the ultimate tear-jerker which had me bawling from the first scene to the last.
For 100 minutes without an interval, kindness, humour, courage, lightness, wonder, stress, curiosity, risk, love, loss, ambition, fear, healing, hospitality, and the full spectrum of human emotions is on display. The music is exquisite, the writing is flawless, the direction is masterful, the lighting is sublime, the acting performances are stunning without exception. The outcome of it all put together is pure theatrical magic. There are so many stories interwoven within this show, the stories of the locals, the stories of “the plane people”, the stories even of the animals in the cargo holds of the planes (including a pair of rare bonobo monkeys, one of whom was pregnant!) – but there is not a moment of disengagement, not a moment of overwhelm, not a minute in the show that feels out of place. The 7000 plane people appear to integrate almost seamlessly into the host town of 9000, and it should have been a miracle that anyone could have had a good time, but somehow almost everyone did. The fact that so many stories from this magnitudinous event could be condensed so smoothly into a 100 minute musical is incredible. The fact that the “feel-good” factor fully acknowledges, and does not in any way diminish the true anguish of the many who were directly impacted by the tragedy, including acknowledging the ugly rise of Islamophobia even within this bubble of wholesomeness, is a testament to the immense skill of the show’s creators.
About the acting performances, Kolby Kindle is wildly entertaining as Bob, an African American man amazed by the generosity of the locals, nervously anticipating his wallet to be stolen or for him to be shot in the back, and being genuinely surprised when that doesn’t happen. He is also captivating in his other roles. Joseph Naim portays two deeply moving characters: Kevin, a gay man whose beautiful relationship is tested during this difficult time, and Ali, an Egyptian chef who is at the receiving end of heartrending discriminatory treatment at airport security and other places. Zoe Gertz is inspirational and energetic as Beverley Bass, the first female Captain of an American Airlines commercial plane, who tells of how she defied all odds to achieve the thing she wanted the most, and describes the pain of seeing what she loved be weaponized by terrorists. Nick and Diane, played by Phillip Lowe and Angela Kennedy with magical on-stage chemistry, is the cutest love story and had the audience as invested as any of the other more “serious” storylines. SPCA worker Bonnie, played beautifully by Kellie Rode, who doggedly cared for all the animals on the planes at personal cost and risk, captured the essence of the Ganderites’ heart and hospitality – they all did what they did because of their open hearts and personal conviction, because they wanted to, and not because it was required of them.
The power of Come From Away lies in the great contrasts it draws from. The horror of an incredibly dramatic, deeply tragic situation, and the healing in ordinary people’s humane response. The sheer volume of stories and interactions, and the modest cast size to portray them. All the action which takes place in various settings across land and sky, and the minimalist stage set with nothing but trees, chairs and tables. The extraordinary levels of tension and stress, both on collective and individual levels, and the equally extraordinary level of gentleness and presence in the moment, taking things one breath at a time. Come From Away is not just brilliant artistry and top-notch live entertainment, it is a snapshot of the very best of humanity, an offering of hope beyond what we tend to experience in our everyday lives. But it is everyday life, and therein lies its power.