There’s a famous song about the events of September 11, 2001, one that asks, “Where were you when the world stopped turning?” As it turns out, some people were up in the air and, when air travel was stopped, about 7,000 of them found themselves stranded in the tiny town of Gander in Newfoundland. Come from Away, a musical created by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, directed by Christopher Ashley, and onstage now at Durham Peforming Arts Center, explores this fascinating phenomenon and the impact it had on everyone who was a part of it.
The performance starts with a quick glimpse at the simple way in which the people of Gander live- at least until their lives are suddenly upended by the news that 38 planes will be landing at their airport. As they rush around, preparing to house and help these individuals, the audience's attention is quickly diverted to the people who are still stuck on planes, being forced to wait for hours. These people and their plight are perfectly showcased with the song “28 Hours/Wherever We Are,” which captures the confusion, fear, and desperation they all felt.
This song also serves to introduce a few of the musical’s key characters, two partners both named Kevin (Nick Duckart and Brandon Springman); a lone Englishman named Nick (Chamblee Ferguson); the Texan, Diane, who has caught his eye (portrayed at the opening night performance by standby Jenny Ashman); Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas) who desperately fears for the fate of her firefighter son; and Ali (Nick Duckart), who is profiled, searched, and questioned simply due to his faith and middle-eastern descent. All of the actors do double (or triple, or more) duty as they move in and out of different roles, accents, and costume pieces, but each character shines through as real, believable, and memorable, and there’s never any confusion as to who’s who at any given moment.
The First North American Tour Company of COME FROM AWAY, Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2018
As the so-called “plane people” spend five days in Gander, a muti-themed and fascinating story unfolds. The script covers literally every detail and emotion from that time in an incredibly authentic way, not even leaving out details such as what happened to the animals onboard. It shows how people come together in times of need and the incredible kindness of the people of Gander. It also shows the rare connections that form in times of crisis, as beautifully demonstrated between Hannah and Beulah (Julie Johnson), different women from different parts of the world, and with different skin colors, but who bond simply over the fact that they both have firefighter sons and know what it’s like to be a worried mother.
And, as much as the production explores the more touching moments that unfolded, it’s unafraid to also show that, sometimes, tragedy doesn’t just bring out the best in people; sometimes, it brings out the worst. The musical demonstrates how some people grow apart and how relationships can break, as well as the horrific prejudice so many faced in the aftermath of this tragedy. Duckart beautifully portrays Ali, a Muslim man who gets targeted both getting off the plane and then again as he gets back on. Duckart does an amazing job of helping the audience understand the shame and fear that Ali feels, and the script creates him not just as a mere plot device, but as a real, complex character whom the audience feels sympathy for and kinship with.
In fact, perfect characterization is one of the many strengths of this thoughtful, touching musical. It also boasts beautiful staging, touching imagery- such as the sight of several people of different faiths all praying in one room in their own ways-, just the right touches of humor at just the right places, and hauntingly-beautiful music. Standout songs include “ Prayer” and “Something’s Missing,” which deals with the emptiness that so many people felt in the aftermath of this tragedy.
Ultimately a hopeful story and one that will have viewers in both tears and peals of laughter, Come from Away is an important show that everyone can connect with. For many viewers, it will open up a whole new facet of 9/11 that they never knew existed. And, it should make everyone reflect on the events of that day and on how, in the end, kindness won and always will.
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