• Leslie

Come From Away: The Kindness of Strangers in a Sometimes Blackish World

Updated: Aug 3, 2019

“We started off with 7000 strangers, but we finished with 7000 family members.”

-- Mayor of Gander, Claude Elliott

Pittsburgh's Benedum Center theater

Welcome to the rock.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Come From Away , the sleeper hit “9/12” musical set on the rock of Gander Canada. Gander?

But, urged on by my friend Sara, I bought tickets at the last minute and we went to my favorite Pittsburgh haunt, the Benedum Center.

Two things gave me pause about going. First, I am not inclined toward artistic responses to terrorist attacks. But everything I read suggested that the focus was on the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and I wouldn’t be presented with horrifying images of burning buildings.

Second, treacly feel good tales are not my thing. I normally hate them. They may prompt me to pantomime vomiting, my distaste is so strong. I won't even watch reruns of Friends. If a musical isn’t a straight up serious weighty drama like Les Miz, I want something that’s sarcastic, witty, with some dark humor. Something with a bite. Think Book of Mormon or Kinky Boots.

But I figured if the doughty urbanized New Yorkers and Londoners adored the groundbreaking musical, I might too. Plus, I took Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda's adoration as a good sign.

Come From Away has no bite. No dark humor. It’s straightforward, humble, and honorable. It's slickly executed and has a peppy sort of mournful brilliance. It's not saccharine at all.

I found it quite delightful.

The play is written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a marital Canadian playwright team, who interviewed the Gander folk. It's done in one act. The play is the remarkable true story of a small town’s response to planeloads of strangers being unexpectedly left at their airport after the unfolding terror of the 9/11 attacks. It has 12 cast members that tell a 5 day story in 100 minutes.

On 9/11, the FAA shut down air space and diverted planes to the nearest airports. Inbound flights from Europe were diverted to Canada. 38 planes were diverted to Gander, a tiny isolated town on the island of Newfoundland.

airport in Gander Newfoundland

Gander has a population of 9,000. It has 6 stoplights and the occasional stray moose. 7,000 bewildered passengers were deposited there, nearly doubling Gander's size and prompting emergency planning.

The Ganderians’ response was unbelievably heartwarming. They stopped their normal lives. They embraced an international throng of strangers. They supplied shelter, food, clothing, and comfort, asking nothing in return. They turned their hockey rink into a giant refrigerator.

Over their 5 days together, the noble Ganderians and the “plane people” bonded, drank whiskey, and tried to pass the time during an awful time.

the simple set of Home Far Away at the Benedum in Pittsburgh

There is some pathos in the broadway show. The stranded passengers learn of the terrorist attack via TV. They can't contact their loved ones at first. One woman's firefighting son is killed. A couple breaks up. The Ganderians observe a moment of silence in solidarity with their American guests.

But it's not cloying. The pathos and heartbreak is deftly handled, and not dwelt on unduly. It's thankfully just part of the blur of activity in the fast paced show. And there are some hysterical comic moments that made us laugh.

There’s a funny scene where several passengers, in a ritual called Screech In, decide to drink the strong local rum and become honorary Newfoundlanders. As a rite of passage, they kiss a live codfish.

When the bathrooms need to be cleaned, a team of cardiologists storm the stage with white coats and plungers held aloft. At a bar one night, the wailing theme song from Titanic is ironically belted out, karaoke style.

the real life Texan and geeky Brit who fall in love in Gander Canada

The acting is excellent across the board. It is a true ensemble cast based on real life testimonials of the people that experienced it.

There are 12 radically diverse cast members that cleverly play both the local residents and the stranded passengers, jumping back and forth between multiple roles and multiple accents. They use a sing-song speaking narrative, backed up with some rousing foot-stomping Celtic folk rock.

There are no bad guys or singular heroes. There are no big stars, no Pilates gorgeous women, no brocaded costumes, no lock step chorus lines. Just regular people of all ages, sizes, and races wearing jeans, plaid shirts, and boots. There's even a pregnant Bonobo chimpanzee on one of the grounded planes who, like the other passengers, suffers setbacks and rebounds.

I liked the suspicious native New Yorker who went from fretting over the safety of his wallet to gleefully kissing the codfish to be part of the Newfoundland family. I liked the geeky English engineer who gets the quiet girl from Texas. The gay New York duo both named Kevin. And the sassy New York mama who loses her son, but makes a lifelong Canadian friend.

the cast of Come From Away. image source: Matthew Murphy

The constant character swapping should be confusing, but I found it clever. The best switcheroo was when the Gander mayor plays the mayor of three towns in a matter of seconds -- switching hats, donning mustaches, and drawing laughs.

The music wasn’t all that notable or memorable. It was the acting and writing that captivated me. The staging wasn't fancy either. It was a modest, simple setting with no bells or whistles. So much the better, considering the gravity of the precipitating event.

Warmth doesn’t leap into my mind when I think of Newfoundland, the land that “tries to kill” people according to one song’s lyrics.

But the moving show exudes warmth and lays bare the unexpected compassion of humans. It's a show of heroic hospitality in a distressing time. Of love and food and hugs. The Ganderians were modest about it all, dumbfounded that people were "making a musical about us making sandwiches."

In a world filled with plenty of bitterness and hate, Come From Away is a wistful tonic, a bearhug reminder that there is still light in a sometimes blackish world. Even the harshest cynics like me will want to soak up this tale, set on a rock where “our candle’s always in the window and our candle’s always on.”

-- Leslie

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