The island of Newfoundland is a geological relic of a great continental collision. According to playwrights Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who researched the area and population of the country to prepare the script for Come From Away, "pieces of Africa and Europe" formed the island before drifting off to their current locations.
Fast forward. Millions of years later, members of al-Qaeda crash planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In response, the U.S. closes its airspace and diverts 38 planes to the airport near Gander, Newfoundland. There, like the continents that came before them, 7,000 people from all over the world converge on a town of 7,000 Newfies.
What happens when these kind island-people who live in the poorest province in Canada realize that they have to play host to a bunch of irritated and scared and stranded "plane people" who nearly outnumber them? They help. Instantly, food comes off the store shelves, the hockey rink becomes cold storage, and every home's a hotel. An indicative line, given by an actor playing a clerk: "Thank you for shopping at Wal-Mart. Would you like to come back to my house for a shower?"
This is the strong, uplifting premise of Come From Away, a musical running now at the Seattle Rep. Normally, I'm a stone when it comes to musicals. Their joyful swells break against me, but I do not budge. And, indeed, for the first five minutes of this show, in which there is an alarming amount of Chucky Cheeseball hokey-pokey hand-jiving, I thought I was in for it. But by minute six or seven, I was smiling at all the small town charm and rooting for the spirit these people projected.
In 2011, Sankoff and Hein, the playwrights I mentioned earlier, travelled up to Gander for the 10th year anniversary of 9/11 and the arrival of the plane people. They conducted long interviews, did research, walked around town, and spent months weaving quotes together and punctuating them with pretty standard jovial, despairing, and hopeful numbers inspired by the Irish-sounding music of the area.
The show that resulted from this process feels more like a musical version of a piece of longform journalism that might have run in The New Yorker. We're introduced to several different characters, among them the first woman pilot to fly for American Airlines, a gay couple nervous about outing themselves, a master chef who happens to be an Egyptian muslim, a young black dude who's understandably skeptical about this whole situation, a lonely British man, and a divorcee from Houston.
The lives and fates of these characters interweave in adorable and meaningful ways as townies rush around in an attempt to feed and clothe everybody. The actors play the roles of the plane people and the Newfies, which emphasizes the show's primary theme: do unto others, because the prince can easily become the pauper.
Jenn Colella's portrayal of Beverly, the first woman ever to fly for AA, was especially compelling. On 9/11, terrorists transformed airplanes—a symbol of hard-won achievement and freedom for a pilot—into bombs. Watching Beverly think about those implications was moving, and it made me think about the way that day affected other kinds of people. How did 9/11 change architects? How did it change city planners?
At the performance I attended, a few "plane people" were actually in the audience. It turned out that I was sitting behind Nick and Diane, the lonely old British guy and the Houstonian divorcee, respectively. Their courtship involved cod kissing, a drunken marriage proposal, a romantic moment overlooking a geographical wonder called the Dover Fault, and a wise-cracking flight attendant. Since I was close to them, I did my journalistic duty and spoke with them in the lobby after the show.
Nick and Diane married shortly after their surprise week in Newfoundland. I asked Nick if the people of Gander were really as nice as they seemed in the play. "They were nicer," he said. "You cannot believe how accommodating and helpful."
The couple confirmed the accuracy of the play with regard to their relationship. They really did kiss that fish in the bar and they really did take those photos at Dover Fault and the flight attendant really did say that funny thing she said and love is real. Human beings can be very good to each other, at least for five days, and maybe even for several days afterwards. Diane said she bought new computer equipment for their hosts as partial repayment for the kindness shown to them. Other plane people send back gifts and money when they can, too.
Get your tickets to this thing while you still can. I just got word that Come From Away has broken the Rep's all-time record for single ticket sales in a 24-hour period.