Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay


Come from Away
National Tour
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule


The Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Try as I might, I can't come up with another work of theatre to which virtually everyone in the world can relate to on such a visceral, personal level as Come from Away, whose touring company has touched down in San Francisco for a four-week layover at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre. There are few events that have touched as many lives as the tragedy that took place on September 11, 2001. Yes, great theatre finds a way to engage our empathy, and give us something to identity with, even if the subject matter is far from our personal experience. There are core human emotions of love and longing, of anger at injustice, of desire for independence (or connection) that many theatrical works have plumbed in powerful, moving ways (South Pacific, West Side Story, Company...). There are plays and musicals that open up a world outside our experience, or take us deeply into stories and experiences we may know little or nothing about (Oslo, Ruined, Hamilton...).

But the terrifying events of 9/11 resonate with all of us. Even those who were born after that day feel its effects in their daily lives. Those who were alive and aware when the towers went down will never forget where we were and what we were doing in the moment we learned of the attack. Everyone remembers the range of emotions that hit: surprise, fear, anger, anxiety, suspicion, sadness, impotence. Everyone remembers the sense of community and coming together to respond to a threat that had just become more real and more terrifying than ever.

Come from Away tells the story of how American airspace was shut down for nearly a week after that day and 38 airliners were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, stranding their passengers and crew in that tiny, isolated town, and how our neighbors to the north opened their homes and hearts to 7,000 frightened, confused, stressed souls.

The set design by Beowulf Boritt is simple, elemental, and magnificent. Tree trunks, bare of limbs, some splintered and broken, are set against a grid of backlit wooden rectangles. A variety of simple wooden chairs become airplane seats, viewpoint railings, cots, and everything else needed to tell this story. Howell Binkley's lighting design never calls attention to itself, but rather reinforces moods of unease or release or tension or celebration the characters are experiencing.

The cast of 12 make a mighty chorus, and the eight-piece band perform the driving rhythms and plaintive yearnings in the score with undeniable energy and emotion. When several of the musicians join the cast for a scene in a bar, the raucous, infectious sense of momentary liberation from care drew the audience into spontaneous rhythmic clapping at the performance I attended. Only propriety and convention likely kept me and the rest of my fellow theatergoers from getting up and dancing along.

It may be unfair to single out a few performers from a cast this uniformly strong, but Kevin Carolan does yeoman work as Mayor Claude (and others). His role is almost a ringmaster of sorts, guiding us through the story, and Carolan owns the stage with a confidence organic to his character, and a brilliant sense of comic timing. Harter Clingman brings his lovely baritone to all his roles, and Andrew Samonsky and Nick Duckart are marvelous as a gay couple, both named Kevin. ("It was cute. For a while," says Kevin T.) Duckart also plays Egyptian chef Ali, whose character represents all the Middle Easterners who suddenly had to deal with the undeserved suspicion, mistrust, and even hatred directed at them in the days (and months, and years) after 9/11.

If you had told me the producers of Come from Away planned to tell the stories of 16,000 people (9,000 Gander residents and 7,000 stranded travelers) in just over an hour and a half, I would have suggested a significant narrowing of focus. But it turns out the unifying element—that this all takes place over a few days in one tiny town in response to an event of global proportions—is focus enough. Creators Irene Sankoff and David Hein have managed—rather elegantly—to cram in the stories and viewpoints of dozens and dozens of individuals. Yet, because they are all united by the same tragedy, what could be a chaotic mess of conflicting stories and experiences becomes an emotional convergence of tremendous power.

This is especially true in the finale, when the connection between all of us—not just these 12 actors, nor the 7000 stranded travelers or 9,000 surprised Ganderites, but the whole of humanity—becomes clear. The show, without preaching or cajoling, reminds us that the divorced Texan and the lonely Brit and the two gay Kevins and the Egyptian chef and the union leader—and everyone else on the planet—want the same basic things: security, friendship, love, and a bond with our fellow humans, no matter who they are.

The opening number, "Welcome to the Rock," establishes a theme that builds through every moment of the show. "I'm an islander, I am an islander," the song repeats, as the cast stomps out the rhythm. While Claude the mayor and Oz the constable and Bonnie the SPCA manager may be singing about their life on a cold, isolated, unforgiving bit of stone off the northeast coast of Canada, the message is far more inclusive: while we may not have lost a friend or family member on 9/11, or spent uncomfortable, lonely nights on a cot in a shelter far from home, we all "Come from Away" in one sense or another, and it's why we must all come together as residents of Island Earth.

Come from Away, through February 3, 2019, at SHN's Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $56 -$256, and are available by calling the box office at 888-746-1799 or by visiting SHNSF.com. For more information on the tour, visit comefromaway.com/tour.php.


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