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REVIEW: Come from Away by Irene Sankoff & David Hein

The cast of Come From Away
Photo: Jeff Busby

Where we you on September 11th, 2001? What were you doing when you heard the news? What do you remember of that day? Of the next day and the week that followed?

After the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon, the United States closed its airspace for the first time ever – and many planes headed for America were diverted to a small town with a large airport on the island of Newfoundland in Canada. On a normal day, the airport in Gander would welcome half a dozen planes. On September 11, 38 planes with nearly 7000 passengers landed there. Welcome to The Rock.

I had read about the town of Gander at the time – about the people of the town who pitched in to help these “come from aways” and of those people who were landed there for several days, stuck between where they boarded and where they were headed. And Gander airport itself has a fascinating history, once being a mandatory stop between North America and Europe in the days before planes could fly that distance without stopping.

The musical version of this story, Come From Away, lands in Melbourne after many years of development, as well as productions in Toronto, Dublin, on Broadway and the West End. I saw a very early reading that was streamed online from Sheridan College way back in 2012 and have eagerly anticipated seeing it ever since.

I asked what you remember of that day because for most of us it was just another day and somehow we had to cope with work and school, with the news playing in the background; back in a time when newspapers put out afternoon editions to stay cutting-edge. For the seven thousand people on those thirty-eight planes, they were in limbo. To begin with, most of them couldn’t disembark for nearly fifteen hours and even after that, most of them didn’t have access to information about what had happened. This was a time when most people didn’t have mobile phones, let alone smart phones where you can get your news instantaneously.

The show is based on interviews that writers Irene Sankoff and David Klein conducted with the people of Gander and some of the passengers who returned to the town on the tenth anniversary of September 11th. Most of the characters in the show are based on real people, many of whom have seen their lives play out on stages across the world. On leaving the theatre, the accents of those real Newfoundlanders could be heard in the audience and in the foyer. This musical is a kind of documentary.

The nature of the show gives it a unique feel and flavour. After the people of Gander are introduced, going about their normal day, starting off at Tim Hortons, talking about a school bus strike, the planes start to arrive and everything is thrown into chaos. All the actors play multiple characters, from the towns and on the planes. The early songs employ recitative, a style where performers sing with the rhythms of ordinary speech – and we are robbed of comforting rhymes or choruses, bridges or climaxes. This is a town in upheaval, its population nearly doubled by visitors from one hundred different countries whose lives are put on hold. It’s hard to find your voice or tell your story, when everything is so uncertain.

The production itself is quite simple. There’s a revolve, but it’s used judicially, and the set is a frame of large trees, with wooden slats as a simple backdrop. The band is small and sits on stage as well, joining the show a couple of times when the passengers decide its time for a drink and head to the local bar.

The focus of the show is on the situation itself; the musical a true ensemble with only occasional break out moments to focus on a character or a couple. What Come From Away is doing is painting a picture and capturing a moment; yes, there’s tension and some character development, but it’s more interested in a snapshot of a town and a time rather than trying to invent stakes or create typical or expected dramatic arcs. There were moments when I wanted the show to dig further into a particular person’s tale, but that might have meant tweaking reality and this event doesn’t need an added layer of drama. The truth of it is enough.

The Original Australian Cast of Come from Away
Photo: Jeff Busby
The songs in the latter half of the show feel more like the kind of thing you’d want in a musical – and by then the people of Gander and the “come from aways” are growing closer together and a few days in, the visitors are finally finding their voices enough to tell their stories.

One of the really fascinating personal stories is that of Beverley Bass, one of the pilots on the planes diverted to Canada, who was the first female Captain for  American Airlines in the 1980s. Zoe Gertz’s performance of “Me and the Sky” is heartfelt, fun and devastating – the show in microcosm. It focuses on Beverley’s dreams and fears and the struggles she had becoming a pilot in a man’s world. And we’re getting to know her in a way we haven’t had a chance to know anyone else, understandably; but it’s her lifestyle that has been shaken to the core this day, the day two airliners were flown into the towers of the World Trade Centre.

It’s tricky to focus on individual performances in this show, since the cast is working so hard playing multiple characters, but doing it so well that you’re never confused about who they are at any given moment. Richard Piper is relishing his roles as the Mayors of Gander and other surrounding towns. Nicholas Brown is one of a couple of Kevins, but also brings poignancy to the role of Ali, a Muslim passenger that everyone becomes suspicious of. Sharriese Hamilton’s performance as Hannah, a woman from New York, whose firefighter son is missing, is deeply moving. But there’s really nothing to fault in the entire cast; the wide variety of accents is particularly impressive, including the distinct Newfoundland sound.

Set against the backdrop of an event in my lifetime that is seared onto my mind as a moment when the world changed, and in many ways not for the better, Come From Away reminds us that human beings can rally together and form communities out of nothing more than a shared experience and the beginning of a moment.

On an island, at the edge of the world, the world came together and then it moved on. The people of Newfoundland and the plane people will have a story of that day that none of them will ever forget. And with this musical, we get to share in those days, and remember that even in the worst times, people can be good.

Come From Away is the perfect mix of sad and joyous; difficult and sentimental. Stop the world and stay in Gander a while. Come on in, the door is open and the kettle’s always on.

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