Come From Away, the newest musical at La Jolla Playhouse, tells the touching true story of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, Canada which double in population for five days when over 30 planes were diverted to the island after all planes were rerouted on September 11, 2001. The story of 9,000 stranded travelers spending almost a week in this strange land full of friendly people is so vibrant and ripe for telling that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been made into a feature film or play before now.
I was a senior in high school in San Diego, CA on September 11, 2001. I went to school that day and all we did was watch the news in every class while most of my teachers cried or frantically tried to call family in New York. My dad watched CNN nonstop for weeks. The videos of the towers falling are seared into my mind like every other American of a certain age. I knew a couple people who lived in New York City at the time but I didn’t personally know anyone who died or was related to someone who died. As an American and a human of course I was affected but it was a different type of pain and sadness than most of the film, theater, and other artistic takes on the event have depicted throughout the years. As a bystander grappling with events taking place 3,000 miles away, I always felt slightly guilty for not being more involved. Come From Away is one of the best depictions of the confusion, panic, and helplessness felt during the days following 9/11 from the perspective of people not at ground zero, or New York, or even on American soil.
Written by husband and wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, this musical gives a full sense of place and culture in just under 100 minutes. I love musicals with no intermission. Everything feels fast and immediate and there is no need to shoehorn a curtain warmer* into the show just to bring people back to their seats after intermission. Knowing nothing about Newfoundland before the play, my best description of it now would be Fargo, North Dakota meets a small town in Ireland and now “I want to go to there.” Directed by Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley, Come From Away is fast paced with a large ensemble cast all playing multiple roles and taking on a variety of accents (some better than others). With so many viewpoints, the play manages to maintain a clear and moving story, keeping the balance between the people of Gander and the ordeal of the stranded passengers.
One of the main reasons I love theater is that you get to relish in the suspension of disbelief, more so than with film. Set design, blocking and lighting are so integral to a good performance. The Come From Away set design by Beowulf Boritt and lighting by Howell Binkley’s really added to the story. Rows of chairs become airplanes and busses and a rotating stage gives characters the ability to take long walks through the town of Gander. The tinted blue lighting is all that’s needed to designate the inside of a plane.
With so many characters, most get used to round out the Gander citizens and “plane people” but a few really stood out. Jenn Colella, as pilot Beverley Bass, was one of the few characters to get a fully fleshed out backstory and her own song. As the first female pilot Captain for American Airlines, the story of her life should be made into its own play.
The one romantic comedy element is given to Diane (Sharon Wheatley), a Texan, and Nick (Lee MacDougall), an Englishman, who meet cute during their 28-hour plane ordeal and fall in love over the five day trip. The other core relationship in the play is between Colin (Chad Kimball) and his boyfriend, also named Colin (Caesar Samayoa). Colin and Colin are meant to showcase how open-minded and welcoming to the gay couple everyone in Gander was but also to show that not everyone handles the unusual and stressful situation the same way or with the same outcome.
Rodney Hicks, as Bob, has the most poignant moment in the play when he worries about getting shot by the locals for “stealing” their grills for a town bbq. After the recent shootings in South Carolina, this quick comment by a Black American man worried for his safety, and confused by the friendliness of the Canadian people, is beyond heartbreaking. It was played for laughs, and got lots of them, but I hope there was some contemplation about American race relations behind the laughter. Toward the end of the play he says he couldn’t bare tell people he felt safer in Gander with a bunch of strangers than he ever has in his own country. What a necessary gut punch.
The music is a beautiful and upbeat folk sound filled with pipes and strings and a very interesting hand-held drum. The band is on stage the entire time and after the cast takes their last bow, the band comes out front and center to play one last rockin’ song. The music could have easily taken the tone of Come From Away into melodrama but this musical stays away from cliched ballads and instead infuses the show with an “anything can happen” energy, which is exactly what you’d expect from a play about 17,000 people learning to coexist and thrive during a state of emergency.
Performances run through July 12th. Buy your tickets today!
Film and Theatre Vocabulary
*Curtain Warmer – The big song, and generally a turning point in the narrative, that occurs right before intermission in order to entice people to come back and finish watching.