These days there is a preoccupation with nations and homelands, “us” versus “them,” and “ours” versus “not yours.” However, it would be dishonest to say that we haven’t always been bent toward making these distinctions—Canada’s Atlantic provinces have a specific name for folks who are not native to the area: “come from aways.” But Come From Away, in a sterling production whose national tour just landed at the Kimmel Center, is the reminder of the generosity that is possible, even when cultural differences threaten to divide.
The morning of September 11, 2001, the people of Gander, a small town in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, began the day like any other. Teachers welcomed students in spite of a bus-driver strike, people drove to and from work, the mayor began his daily assessment of town goings-on. But when the terrorist attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC commenced and US airspace was closed, Canada launched Operation Yellow Ribbon to handle the flights diverted for emergency landing within its borders.
Part dramatization, part docudrama, Come From Away tells the story of the passengers and crew members of the 38 flights that were stranded for five days in Newfoundland in the wake of the attacks, and the locals who jumped to the travelers’ aid. The population of Gander nearly doubled in size to unbegrudgingly accommodate the stray 7,000 people and animals, maxing out the town’s resources.
A difficult balance
Canadian partners and writing team Irene Sankoff and David Hein achieve something unique and remarkable in this tight 90-minute show. Come From Away is both uncompromising in its joy and comedy and stark in its portrayal of the realities that come in the wake of a massive, national tragedy—a difficult balance to accomplish in a piece that moves as fast as this one does.
The thumping beat of the Celtic bodhran and the rapid fiddle drive us forward as the 12-person ensemble switch gracefully and speedily between characters (of which most of them play at least five). However, this rapid-moving world, masterfully directed by Christopher Ash, never feels rushed or glossed over. The interpersonal relationships drawn are genuine and deep, delivering the soulfulness and the complexity of the magic that can occur when strangers are thrown together through adversity.
The actors are all magnificent, speaking to the family feeling that they’ve strived to create. But especially glittering are Christine Toy Johnson as Diane, a middle-aged woman who finds love in British businessman Nick (Chamblee Ferguson) while grounded in Canada; and Danielle K. Thomas, who plays a mother waiting to hear the fate of her son, a firefighter in New York City.
Beowulf Boritt’s set is utilitarian and rich. With mismatched wooden chairs surrounded by floor-to-ceiling tree trunks, he allows the scenes to move from one to the next without losing the wildness of the Newfoundland shores. Costumes by Toni-Leslie James are similarly effective—the character switches are brisk, but James negotiates the changes expertly.
Would we do the same?
Toward the end of the musical, one of the passengers thanks a Newfoundlander for their hospitality and gifting of their time and their means. He asks if there is anything those on the flights could do to repay the locals. The Newfoundlander responds with a negative, stating “You would have done the same.” Instead of a sense of satisfaction or cheer, I felt grief hit me in the pit of my stomach.
We all know what’s happening at our borders—the 5,400 children separated from their parents, the refugees being turned away or detained. The US has its own group of “come from aways.” But, ironically, as they say at the end of the musical, “Because we come from everywhere, we all come from away.” I don’t believe we are currently a country that would act in the same way those Newfoundlanders did nearly 20 years ago. I hope that someday soon I’ll be proven wrong.
What, When, Where
Come From Away. By Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Broadway Philadelphia. Through November 3, 2019, at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.
The Academy of Music is a wheelchair-accessible venue. There will be a performance of Come From Away with ASL and audio description on Friday, November 1 at 8pm.