The greater story of what happened on 9/11 is well known, but the musical Come From Away shows us a much more confined, lesser known part of it. When all of the planes were grounded in the immediate wake of the attacks, has it ever occurred to you to wonder just where they went? American air space was closed: those not already in the country simply couldn't get here. The answer is simple: 38 jets were diverted to the tiny hamlet of Gander on the island of Newfoundland, nearly doubling its population in a few hours. What followed were a remarkable several days in which Canadian hospitality was taken to extremes, as several tiny towns rolled out the welcome mats, inviting strangers into their homes and giving them food and extra clothing. It's the kind of story that hardly even seems possible in these cynical times, yet it happened.
"Welcome to the Rock," the islanders sing in their opening number as they tell of learning about the terrorist attacks and realizing that they would be used as a diversion point. "Our candle's in the window and our candle's always on. / When the sun is coming, and the world has come ashore. / If you're hoping for a harbor than you'll find an open door." Meanwhile, the passengers on those 38 airplanes are sitting on the tarmac after already enduring flights of up to 28 hours, and they have no clue even why they have been diverted to this place...or even where this place is. Some freak out, some complain, some get drunk on airline liquor. But when they are finally allowed to leave the planes, this diverse group of nearly 7000 people from all around the world is confronted with two realities at once: the tragedy of 9/11 and the fact that they will be here, "somewhere in the middle of nowhere," for quite awhile.
Eventually the wary travelers come to realize that the famous Canadian hospitality is not merely a myth as the local stores provide everything they might need and the locals even get together to throw a huge barbecue for the visitors. But the fact is that, comforts or not, they are all stuck in Gander while, somewhere, loved ones are wondering what has happened to them. And for some of them, most notably Q. Smith's Hannah, whose son is a firefighter with the Second Company that helped out at the World Trade Centers, there is the terror of Not Knowing. (While phones are eventually supplied, satisfying most, Hannah's travails continue: her son is apparently among the missing.)
I should be there when It's over and done.
When he comes through the door and says, I'm home mom.
I should be there for my son but instead, I am here. I am here.
For others, the island is slowly becoming a second home, and for some this moment is redefining their lives. Some are falling in love with people they met on the plane, and some are having old relationships challenged. The locals even fashion a rather elaborate ceremony (including kissing a cod) to initiate a foursome of the newcomers into life as Newfoundlanders.
This is a rare Broadway play that is a true ensemble effort. Though there are some who stand out merely by virtue of their positions on the island or the plane (for example, Joel Hatch as Claude, the Mayor; Chad Kimball as half of a gay couple both named Kevin and the island head of a transportation union; and Astrid Van Wieran as Beulah, the wonderfully matronly schoolteacher) it is not a play about individuals. With that in mind, though, one actor does have a standout moment that requires mention. Jenn Colella, as the teacher Annette on the island and the pilot Beverley, has dual roles like most, but it is in her role as the pilot that she truly shines. Her solo, "Me and the Sky," is both a triumphant accounting of a life spent breaking barriers as a female pilot and a heartbreaking recognition that her lifelong passion has just been tainted. Colella's anguish is palpable here, but no more palpable than her joy when she gets to tell the passengers later that they have arrived in Dallas. Like everyone, hers is an excellent performance, and it was nominated for a Tony.
Come From Away may have lost the Tony to the Dear Evan Hansen juggernaut, but that says nothing about its incredible quality. In fact, director Christopher Ashley won Best Director, an acknowledgment that this lesser-known play's brilliance stemmed from some outstanding leadership. Its nonstop energy and drive remind me of a much-lower-key Hamilton: it is a slice of history for two countries, one with the leader of Britain on their money and one the USA, as they come together in an urgent event. This time, though, the even spawns joy and love and trust and long-term fond memories. The energy may be similar, but that's about all.
Come From Away is now playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St in New York, in an open run. Tickets are available from The Shubert Corporation. Find more information about Chicago plays at theatreinchicago.com.