Oh, Canada!

“Come From Away” captures the loving kindness our northerly neighbors provided when terror struck.

Sharing a continent with a country as nice as Canada is like having a sibling so soft-hearted and sweet-tempered that you know you’ll never measure up by comparison.  So why not just concede the point instead of getting all worked up aboot it, eh?

Just be forewarned that if you see Come From Away at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, you may find yourself overtaken by an urge to kiss the next native-born Canadian you run into—be they man, woman, child or cod.

I’ll explain that last one in a moment.

The musical, which runs through Sunday, could pass for a kindness-to-strangers parable made up by a minister to inspire the flock.  But every character and every story is as all-too-real as a Ken Burns documentary, based on what happened over the course of five days in a small Canadian town when every commercial airliner in American skies was grounded as a security measure after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Thirty-eight of those airliners were diverted to the tiny, four-hotel community of Gander, Newfoundland, whose population of just under 10,000 citizens found itself playing host to 6,759 passengers, nine cats, 11 dogs, and two bonobo apes with nowhere else to go. 

Broadway waited half a century before making a musical about the sinking of the Titanic. Is it too soon for a song-and-dance evocation of 9/11? For that matter, won’t it always be too soon? David Hein and Irene Sankoff, a Canadian couple and playwrighting team who were living in New York City when 9/11 happened, didn’t think so.

With a $12,000 grant from the Canada Council for the Arts they began interviewing the townspeople and passengers who had, in a Gander colloquialism, “come from away” on that terrible day. Somehow, using the same strategy that the creators of A Chorus Line employed to turn the ups and downs of aspiring Broadway performers into a musical for the ages, they have distilled the heartbreak and humanity of 9/11 into a cathartic theatrical masterpiece.

Given the dark anniversary we observed this week, I’m sure I am not the only one who walked out and across the broad, grassy plaza in front of Dr. Phillips Center after the show, remembering what it felt like to be there after the Pulse attack in communal gatherings that made grief and inspiration and despair and hope run together like colors in rain. I’d just seen the stagecraft and stories of Come From Away wrench much the same thing out of 9/11.

A minimalist set—rows of chairs against a backdrop of gaunt, leafless trees—can double as the interior of a downed airliner and Gander’s town diner. Casting is minimalist, too: the actors play multiple roles, sometimes as “the plane people,” and sometimes as Gander residents. There is no intermission: Once you are engulfed in this tragedy, on board this flight, stranded in this place, you are in for the duration. You have become, as they say in Gander, an islander—just as surely as if you had gone through the raucous induction into honorary Gander citizenship, consisting of drinking a shot of the local moonshine and kissing a codfish, that several of the "plane people'' were invited to undergo.

That should give you a pretty good sense of the folksy embrace and unabashed generosity that greeted the stranded passengers as they were accommodated by hundreds of volunteers, who consoled them, stayed up all night cooking so that a mass breakfast would await when they were finally allowed to depart from their planes, gave them clothing, invited them into their homes to use the Internet and shower.

That jolt of healing hospitality at the outset of the nearly weeklong ordeal is conveyed to the audience by the foot-stomping opening scene of Come From Away, when Gander locals, from the mayor to a cub reporter to just plain folks, are introduced to the audience to the accompaniment of a folksy orchestra, tucked away on the circumference of the stage, complete with fiddle and mandolin.

Once the traumatized wayfarers arrive, their individual stories are revealed to us—some humorous, some tragic, sometimes acted out, sometimes via snappy soliloquies.  A romance between two strangers blossoms.  An Egyptian passenger is scrutinized and subjected to a humiliating search. A mother can’t find out what has happened to her son, a New York City firefighter.

Given the double casting and the breakneck pace, it’s an astonishing challenge for all the performers, who get little more than a few fleeting moments of grace offstage during the show. But the standout is Becky Gulsvig, who, as Beverley Bass, of Fort Myers, the first-ever female American Airlines pilot, sings “Me and the Sky.” It’s what I’d otherwise call a show-stopper, but can’t, because this is a show that doesn’t stop until it’s over, and you walk outside the theater remembering what one of the Gander characters said when he was thanked by a passenger for his kindness:

“You’d do the same for us.”

I’d like to think so.

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For ticket information, click here.

Categories: Arts Beat