By Joe Gfaller
It is often said that crisis brings a community together. Too often in recent years real or manufactured crisis in our communities seem to have done the opposite, deepening dividing lines, bringing out the worst and not the best in people. Perhaps that is why the joyous and poignant national tour of “Come from Away,” now playing at the Fox Theatre is so refreshing and beautiful: it gives hope that on our worst day, we are all capable of finding our best selves.
The worst day in question here is September 11, 2001. The idea that a musical could be written about such an enormous tragedy and contain even a note of laughter may be surprising to some. But “Come From Away” is less about the events of that day and more about our collective memory of them.
The events of 9/11 are indelibly burned into our minds, and those memories come forward whenever anyone asks “Where were you when…” We each have our story. Each is incomplete. As you begin to put them together, the picture gets fuller and richer. Eventually, with enough stories in the picture, it almost feels whole.
That kind of intentional story telling is very much the model of “Come From Away.” Like The Laramie Project or House of Cards, the musical establishes a narrative device that allows each character to tell you their first-person accounts of the events – and then slip right into the events themselves.
When their accounts converge into one common idea (the uncertainty of being on a grounded jet for hours, the search for hope in prayer, the escape of party in a pub), their stories turn into full ensemble numbers that seamlessly weave those many voices together, not as a traditional chorus – but as a community in action.
If you were to ask each of the people whose stories are told in “Come From Away,” “Where were you when…” they would all have the same answer: Gander, Newfoundland. For it’s here that around 7,000 airline passengers were stranded for nearly five days, starting on September 11, once the United States closed its borders to airline travel.
For the 9,000 people already there, for nearly a week, they played unexpected host to the world. “Come From Away” lets us see how both the Islanders and the “Plane People” were changed by that brief encounter – and changed, refreshingly, for the better.
To tell this story, “Come From Away” uses an ensemble of only 12 actors. At times, their virtuosity moving from character to character on a moment’s notice with just the change of a hat or a jacket makes you assume that there are far more people on stage. It’s a marvel to behold. Director Christopher Ashley and musical staging supervisor Kelly Devine deserve high praise for the ever-nimble staging and the sharp, clear character choices that differentiate the many roles each actor plays.
Within the ensemble, no one role is designed to be a star turn. Rather, we get story lines that develop as each of the characters build relationships during their five days together.
Diane, played with heart and zeal by Christine Toy Johnson, is a divorced mother on her way home to Dallas who happens to be sitting next to a well-intentioned but socially awkward Brit named Nick, given a deeply endearing rendering by Chamblee Ferguson. Together, stuck on their American Airlines plane on the Gander tarmac, both feeling alone and “so damn helpless,” they start to get to know each other. Once off the plane, their paths continue to cross until (after perhaps one too many drinks) Diane is given the choice to either kiss a cod or kiss Nick. You can guess which she picks.
Ferguson’s gentle awakening to the fact that he might have feelings for this stranger is touching – particularly in the moment that he finds out that the father of Diane’s child in Dallas is her ex-husband and not currently her husband. And the freedom which Johnson embraces to be the best version of herself in a place where no one knows her is exhilarating — even if the only reason her hair looks so different is that she hasn’t been able to shampoo for 3 days).
That very freedom is what wears upon the other central couple in the show, Kevin T and Kevin J. While Kevin T, played with giddy enthusiasm and a casual charm by Andrew Samonsky, is ready to embrace the adventure of meeting new people in a new place, the longer Kevin J, given a grounded, if slightly arch performance by Nick Duckart, stays in Gander, the more he realizes the place he wants to be is Brooklyn, where he grew up, with the family who needs him. Kevin T never seems to grasp his partner’s struggle – and while it comes as no surprise their relationship does not last until the end of the show, it is certainly a disappointment.
Danielle K. Thomas gives a heartfelt performance as Hannah, a mother whose son is a New York City firefighter. Her struggle to reconcile the fact she cannot be with him is expressed movingly in one of the show’s few true solo numbers “I Am Here.”
The friendship she builds with Newfoundlander Beulah, in a stern but kind performance from Julie Johnson, becomes her lifeline when her son’s voicemail becomes too full to accept new messages and increasingly the worst seems to be around the corner.
But love takes many forms in “Come From Away.” For Beverley, a pilot, her love is flying, despite all odds. Based on a real person, she was the first female pilot to be made captain by American. Her heartbreak comes in “Me and the Sky,” when she realizes now that the one thing she loves most has been turned into a bomb, she can never love it the same way again. Becky Gulsvig gives Beverly strength and conviction in equal parts, a complete 180 degree turn from her other role, a naïve school teacher who seems to find the prospect for love in every male Plane Person she meets. The characters are so different, it took me almost until the end of the show to realize they were played by the same actress.
If Beverly is trying to find order on her plane, Gander’s mayor Claude, played with a twinkle in his eye by Kevin Carolan, and police officer Oz (Harter Clingman, in one of the show’s smaller roles) are trying to create order in the town. Carolan gets to play not just one mayor, but all four mayors in the area with the quick changes of a hat, a moustache, and a pair of glasses. Presiding over a fanciful ritual to turn the Plane People into Newfoundlanders, he gets to lead one of the most delightful sequences in the show and does it with plenty of aplomb.
Emily Walton, as Gander’s new TV anchor Janice, is a breath of fresh air throughout – no more so than when she makes a desperate plea to the extremely generous people of Gander: “For the love of God, stop bringing toilet paper to the Lion’s Club.” As Bonnie, Megan McGinnis balances humor with heartfelt concern for the animals left with the checked luggage in the airport’s 38 airplanes.
As Bob, an African-American New Yorker separated from his family, James Earl Jones II finds humor in some very complicated dynamics about race. Sent by one of Carolan’s many mayors to collect grills from people’s yards for a cookout, he expects to get shot by angry homeowners – and instead is offered tea. When asked back in New York if he was “OK” during those five days in Gander, he realizes that “I wasn’t just OK. I was somehow better.”
Over the course of this crisp one-act musical, that seems to be the message. If it’s possible to be better in a time of crisis, can’t it be possible to be better without the crisis? You don’t need to have a lot of resources to do the right thing. The people of Gander certainly don’t.
There seems to be some intentional alignment between this idea in the script and the way the design of the musical is so eloquently and simply delivered. The set, by Beowulf Boritt, consists of two tables and many chairs, contained within a series of trees that — like the actors themselves — play double duty, in this case, both as set pieces and light trusses. The costumes, by Toni-Leslie James, couldn’t be more simple and effective for the litany of each actor’s many character changes. The same could be said for Howell Binkley’s lighting, which moved us from air traffic control to the interior of an airplane to a Tim Horton’s with remarkable speed and clarity.
The orchestrations are wildly resourceful as well, with only eight musicians serving as the band for a musical in such an enormous theater. Cynthia Kortman Westphal conducted, while also playing keyboard, accordion, and harmonium – with almost every other musician doubling on two or more instruments throughout the show. The musicians sit at the periphery of the stage and join the cast for “Screech In,” the party sequence at a bar – integrating seamlessly into (and then back out of) the action. As part of the curtain call, it was a real treat to see them take center stage to play a joyful sendoff for everyone.
For the finale of “Come From Away,” we jump ahead 10 years to 2011 and to the anniversary of these men and women arriving in Gander. No longer is fear of the unknown present as it was in 2001 – Islanders not knowing if they are prepared to take care of so many unexpected temporary migrants, Plane People not knowing when or how they would see their families again. Instead, the mood is one of joy. “We honor what was lost, but we commemorate what was found,” says the mayor.
By this point, with all the doubling of roles, we in the audience lose track as to which of the twelve actors are supposed to be which characters. Are they Plane People or are they Islanders? In our own lives, we can each have moments when we are the Plane People – the unsettled, the displaced. But we can all have moments when we chose to be the Islanders – radically generous, supportive, welcoming.
So as “Come From Away” ends with the chorus of “I am an Islander,” you realize it doesn’t matter if you were a Plane Person or an Islander at the start. Every character in the musical has become an Islander by the end.
And one wonders if by the end, each of us the audience has cultivated our potential to become more of an Islander ourselves.
The Fox Theatre presents the Tony Award-winning musical, “Come from Away,” now through May 26. For tickets or more information, visit www.fabulousfox.com. Call Metrotix at 314-534-1111.