Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Come from Away
The story of the forced landing of 38 planes in Gander, Newfoundland, during the hours immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, was somewhat well known before this show was created: A town of nine thousand people found a way to care for seven thousand stranded passengers and crewmembers for five days before the United States reopened its airspace and allowed those flights to continue to their intended destinations. This modern-era melting pot is a heartwarming story on its surface, a story of hospitality, resourcefulness, and cross-cultural commonality. But when Irene Sankoff and David Hein went to Gander for the tenth anniversary reunion of the natives and the "Come from Aways," the interviews they conducted became the source material for their book, music and lyrics which capture a deeper and richer range of the human experience.
This is an ensemble show, with each of the twelve cast members playing two or more roles, and that in itself is a fitting metaphor for the odd and sometimes ironic admixture of peoples in this story: The man (Ali Momen) who plays one half of the gay couple also plays the ostracized Muslim man; the woman (Julia Knitel) who plays the wide-eyed small-town reporter on her first day on the job also plays the jaded, xenophobic stewardess. And while the use of a turntable and a shifting array of tables and chairs might not be the most original set, they are used to incredible effect here, giving us an airplane at one moment and the lookout point on a mountain the next.
When I first saw Come from Away in its tryout at Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C. in the fall of 2016, before it went to Broadway, it was already a fully formed, deeply affecting work, and little appears to have been altered since then. The score leans into Celtic and folk-rock traditions that, along with set designer Beowulf Boritt's rough tree trunks and raw planked backdrop, efficiently convey a rural Canadian setting. Kelly Devine's light-touch choreography has the entire cast in constant motion, carrying chairs and minimal props along with them–until everyone and everything comes to rest to underscore an emotional moment. Howell Binkley's lighting design teases out more settings and moods from this blank canvas than one would think possible. Much of this show's effectiveness lies in its ability to maintain this organic flow from scene to song to scene (an intermission would have been a terrible mistake) so fluidly that it appears to be happening without any effort at all.
Lyrically, Come from Away's greatest weakness turns out to be its greatest strength. There are a lot of simple ideas in these songs, many of them repeated many times: so many here's, there's, and I'm fine's, which sometimes teeter into banality. But in total those repeated words become another fabric of in-betweenness. These people continually return to the same truths: They know they are somewhere and they're simultaneously scared that they are nowhere. They sense that something profound is happening to and around them, but from moment to moment, so much of it is mundane. They are not sure how they are going to make it through this, but they are sure they will make it through this. The centerpiece of the show is its only solo, in which American Airlines pilot Beverly (Marika Aubrey) tells the story of the obstacles she faced to become a pilot; at first this extended love story with planes feels disproportionate to the rest of the storytelling, but in the climax Beverly shows her anguish that this thing she has loved has been used as a bomb, and for the first time in a long time, something has come between "Me and the Sky."
The touring production that is playing at DPAC is quite strong; if I wished for anything it would be for the vocals to be a little higher in the mix. Sometimes the band combined with the heavy Newfoundland (and other) accents made me very happy that I was already familiar with the show. If this were the first time I heard this show, I'm quite sure I would have missed a good bit.
Great works that tell the stories of historical events transcend that specific event to reveal important things about the human condition. Come from Away gives us all the pathos we would expect in a story built around 9/11. Beyond that, though, it is an affecting reminder of how tenuous life is, and how the next stranger we meet could be the catalyst that transforms us in ways great or small, tragic or triumphant. Most of our in-between spaces aren't as drastic as a terrorist attack, but we live our lives moving through one space after another, and that means we are alive.
Come from Away, presented by WRAL Greatest Hits of Broadway, runs through through January 22, 2023, at Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St. Durham NC. For tickets and information, please visit www.dpacnc.com, call 919-680-2787, or visit the Ticket Center at DPAC in person. For more information on the tour, visit comefromaway.com.
Book, Music, and Lyrics: Irene Sankoff and David Hein