Threaded through with pulsing, boot-stomping folk music, new musical Come from Away has a visceral effect from the opening notes. This is music designed to get your heart pumping in time, to make you feel like you can instantly clap along, that deep down you might already know the words. This rhythmic familiarity is juxtaposed with the folky accents and small-town rusticity of Gander, Newfoundland, a town of nine thousand whose incongruously large airport made it the perfect holding area for plans re-routed from the abruptly closed American airspace on the morning of September 11, 2001—something that did indeed happen.
With the planes, of course, came their passengers, who needed to eat, sleep, shower, and learn what had happened while they were in the air. The opening number frames Gander as a place of good-hearted resilience, but the story that follows sometimes loses track of what, exactly, all these people are being asked to withstand.
The strongest moments in the musical are those that most skilfully blend hope and pain, the ones that don’t forget that the act of generosity undertaken by the islanders when they stopped their lives to host seven thousand strangers is partly remarkable in itself, but also because of the events that necessitated it, kindness set against terror. A song from the perspective of the passengers trapped on landed planes, some for up to 28 hours, with no information about where they were or why or a refrain from the islanders that “I can’t watch the news anymore” capture a rich emotional atmosphere, the claustrophobia and uncertainty and determination and boredom of the aftermath of a catastrophe. If the show sustained that feeling throughout, it would be a virtuosic depiction of a deeply complex and rarely explored facet of tragedy, one that would all but require the heightened language of song to really capture.
But this is where two things are true. Because the story that follows is unquestionably moving, and zooming in on the small, human stories that unfold over the five days that the “plane people” (as the islanders call them) are stranded in Gander and the surrounding areas are captivating. Stitched together from first-person narration that recalls the interviews creators Irene Sankoff and David Hein conducted, with the company of twelve switching from character to character and back again, individuals still emerge fully-formed: an American divorcee and an isolated British academic who find freedom as the world shakes apart; a gay couple both called Kevin; the local SPCA representative who becomes fixated on the animals trapped in the stranded planes’ holds; two mothers of firefighters, a New Yorker and an islander, who comfort one another; the pilot who struggles to reconcile her love of flight with what it has been used for. Highlights in a dynamite cast are Robert Hand’s gawky warmth, which is consistently irresistible; Rachel Tucker, who bring down the house; Jenna Boyd, who anchors the islanders and whose stellar voice deserved a bigger solo showcase; and Jonathan Andrew Hume, who slips so skilfully from character to character that he is almost unrecognisable.
But characters who demand a darker reckoning tend to get short-changed, as Hume’s characters in particular exemplify. One of the Kevins, a native New Yorker, comes off as a bit of spoil-sport: the particular pain of a local, even one without a personal connection to the tragedy, isn’t fully accepted or understood. Hume also plays an Egyptian traveller, Ali, who becomes the object of racist suspicion, a sour note in the play’s message of acceptance that doesn’t get fully excavated and that the tidy ending seems determined to smooth over. Ali’s experience hints at one of the lasting legacies of the attacks, but the sense that this moment gave birth to the one we live in now—an atmosphere that, politically, the show clearly wants to counteract—is not an idea that the creators seem interested in exploring.
This is fine, of course! Not every show can be everything. And I don’t think it’s a case of lack of respect, but of too much respect. The tragedy is taken as a given. The date is not named until well into the show, and is never described; we all know it was awful, we don’t need reminding—let’s look at another side. But as this play leaves the US, and New York in particular, I think we do need reminding. Perhaps Come From Away didn’t want to be a play about 9/11—but at least from an American’s point of view, it’s an event that casts too long a shadow to be just incidental backdrop, and I don’t know that any play with that backdrop should get to be as unabashedly warm as this one. And yet, I basked very happily in that warmth. Since seeing it, I’ve thought more about that day, about what it meant and what it changed, than I have in a very long time. Some of that was because of what Come From Away asked of me, and some of it was in resistance to it—but it can, of course, be both.
Come From Away is on at Phoenix Theatre. More info and tickets here.