By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Less than an hour after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Canada put into effect “Operation Yellow Ribbon” an emergency effort to help clear all traffic from American airspace landing aloft planes at various airports and airfields in Canada.
One small town in Newfoundland, Gander, received 38 wide-bodied planes; Gander had a population of 6,000 people and took in 7,000 … many of whom were international travelers who didn’t speak English. The “plane” people were forced to stay in Gander while air flight was cancelled in the US and for those five days the Ganderans (Ganderites?) housed, fed, clothed and comforted them through one of the darkest periods in their lives.
Come From Away continues through April 14. Benedum Center, Downtown. trustarts.org
Believe it or not but some people took that tale and turned it into a musical called Come From Away. The show was born at a college in Canada, then started making the US repertory theater rounds and reached Broadway in 2017.
An unknown married couple, Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the book, music and lyrics and the production didn’t feature any big movie or TV stars. And, I think, when people heard the plot they probably thought “Hallmark Movie of the Week.” So it’s sort of snuck into town without any expectations … and became the surprise hit of the season winning all kinds of nominations and citations when awards time rolled around.
Now the first national tour is in town and it’s very easy to understand why it’s become such a personal favorite for so many people. Come From Away manages to be heartfelt without ever being calculating and life affirming without ever making you want to throw up.
With fluid and fleet direction by Christopher Ashley on Beowulf Boritt’s stunning set, this is a piece of organic theater growing from one moment to the next, seemingly without design. It’s only at the end do you suddenly realize the emotional depth that’s been excavated.
We’re introduced to the townspeople and the routine, sameness of their everyday lives. Then the planes start landing and we meet the travelers each bringing their own anxiety and terror onstage. One company of actors play all the characters, many doubling and tripling roles. There’s 12 in total and, yes, I’m going to list them all: Megan McGinnis, Harter Clingman, Becky Gulsvig, Emily Walton, James Earl Jones II, Kevin Carolan, Andrew Samonsky, Chamblee Ferguson, Nick Duckart, Danielle K. Thomas, Julie Johnson and Christine Toy Johnson. Each and every one a sheer joy.
The score by Sankoff and Hein is a mixture of Gaelic-influenced and American Roots folk and rock played remarkably by an onstage band led by Cynthia Kortman Westphal. Kelly Devine contributes some of the best musical staging I’ve seen in a long, long time.
What’s so remarkable about Come From Away is that the writers know exactly how far they can push toward sentimentality without ever tripping over themselves; they’ve created characters (all of whom are based on real people) who exist on a level of theatrical honesty that’s rare. When you find yourself flooded with tears at the end, you don’t feel like you’ve been manipulated into it.
Of course, there’s another reason you might be crying.
Just as I was leaving for the theater I was watching a news report about Trump’s plan to possibly reinstate his child-separation policy … only this time the parent would be given a choice. They could either give away their child or sign away their rights and live with them in a camp for what would probably amount to several years .
It’s impossible to watch Come From Away and witness the extraordinary beauty and kindness of these Canadians who, without even a second thought, gave whatever they had to comfort strangers from across the world … without thinking about Donald Trump, Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner using the brutalization of traumatized brown children to fuel their masturbatory fantasies.
Come From Away makes me ashamed to live in America.