It may feature an actor playing the younger, not the older, President Bush, but the Tony-winning Come from Away sure feels like a callback to a kindler, gentler time. Or at least a kindler, gentler nation to our north.
Based on real events, the show follows travelers on their way from France to Dallas on September 11, 2001, when their plane is unexpectedly grounded near the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland, due to the closing of U.S. airspace. The population of 9,000 rallied to offer housing, food, clothing, comfort and support to the 7,000 unexpected guests on their doorstep.
That may sound like a strange basis for a Broadway musical, but it’s one that works. The stories of the characters on the plane and in the town—played by the same cast—are deeply human ones, from the mother of an FDNY firefighter wondering at the fate of her son to the local SPCA volunteer dodging security to feed pets in the cargo areas. Come from Away is heart-warming without being cloying, finding kindness and compassion in the face of great evil. And it doesn’t shy away from the Islamophobia that sprang from the attacks and have continued to haunt our nation.
The national touring company began a five-day run at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta with special guests in attendance. Kevin Tuerff was a stranded passenger, Beverley Bass was an American Airlines pilot and Claude Elliot was the mayor of Gander in 2001, and all three had major characters in the play based on them. Tuerff has since written a memoir based on the events of that week called Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11. They spoke of their experiences following the play and it was apparent that even before Come from Away was written, the experience had a profound impact on them all.
Written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come from Away is now the longest-running Canadian musical in Broadway history and yet another production will soon debut in Australia. Watching the U.S. tour, it’s easy to see the draw. The cast, including Andrew Samonsky as Kevin T., Becky Gulsvig as Beverly, Megan McGinnis as Bonnie and Danielle K. Thomas as Hannah, were all fantastic, but it’s the celebration of decency that stands out even beyond the music or individual performances. It’s a 100-minute salve for an era of division in a country where immigrant kids are kept in cages. A reminder that humans can be self-sacrificing when so much evidence points in the other direction.
That’s not to say the music is inconsequential. “I Am Here” will tear you up. “Me and the Sky” will lift you up. And “Screech In” will crack you up. The 2018 soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy for a reason. It’s just that the whole production is one earnest ode to our species capacity to respond to the suffering of complete strangers with love. The world could use more stories like these and more people like those who stepped up in a little town in Newfoundland when the need arose.