Monday, April 17, 2017

Come from Away: Forging a Temporary Community

Jenn Colella (left) in Come From Away at Broadway's Gerald Schoenfeld Theater. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

The enormously likable Canadian musical Come from Away, which recently opened on Broadway, dramatizes the role played by the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland, when American air space was locked down in the aftermath of 9/11 and nearly forty planes were rerouted to Gander’s small airport. (In the old days, we’re told, it had been a frequent refueling spot; airport personnel can recall crossing paths with Sinatra and The Beatles when their planes made pit stops there.) The locals reached out to seven thousand stranded strangers from all over the world – whose presence nearly doubled the population for five days – providing food and shelter and devising ways to communicate with those who couldn’t speak English. The most inventive, perhaps, is that of the bus driver (Chad Kimball) who notices that a distressed African couple are carrying a Bible. Though he can’t read the words, he has an intricate knowledge of scripture and he figures that chapter and verse are the same in all editions, so he finds an inspiriting passage to convey to them that they’ll be fine.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein, who supplied book, (folk) music and lyrics, are banal writers, but banality isn’t the worst of theatrical sins; emotional fakery is, and I didn’t detect any of it in Come from Away. The project itself may be sentimental in nature but the production, which was directed by Christopher Ashley, mutes the sentimentality as much as possible; it’s remarkably dry-eyed and its humor is wry and observational. When an Orthodox rabbi can’t eat any of the proffered food, and there’s no local synagogue to help him out, he’s set up in his own kitchen and invited to produce kosher meals – not only for himself and other Jews, but, as it turns out, for some Muslims and a gay vegetarian couple from L.A. The gay men, both named Kevin (Kimball and Caesar Samayoa), are hesitant to admit they’re a couple; they have no idea how redneck a small Maritime Canadian town might be. But when a few too many beers at a bar make them incautious, they’re amused to discover that half their fellow drinkers have gay relatives or friends and use that connection ingenuously to make the Kevins feel more at ease. Bob (Rodney Hicks), an African-American New Yorker, gets over his urban-bred paranoia when his host, the mayor of one of the nearby towns, encourages him to go from yard to yard borrowing his neighbors’ grills and finds that their owners are more than willing to part with them; in Bob’s words, they help him steal their own barbecues.

A scene from Come From Away. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)
Ashley has a gift for opening up cross-hatched cultural situations to get at the feeling inside them; he also directed Memphis, which starred Kimball as a white DJ in the 1950s South who plays “race music” on the air and falls in love with a black singer. I like Come from Away in a lot of the same ways I liked Memphis, though Come from Away has something Memphis didn’t have: the distinctly Canadian virtue of understatement. That virtue extends to the look of the show and the way it moves. Working on Beowulf Boritt’s effective revolving set, Ashley and the choreographer Kelly Devine employ the members of the ensemble, in multiple roles (everyone gets to play both visitors and Newfoundlanders, and the narrative shifts continually between the two groups’ points of view), with such skill that when they take their curtain calls – sharing them with the eight talented musicians – you might be taken aback, as I was, to realize that you’ve been watching only a dozen actors. The showmanship isn’t dazzling; that would violate the basic principle of the musical. Instead it’s a quiet triumph of craftsmanship.

Aside from Kimball, the only actor I recognized was Kendra Kassebaum, whom I’d admired in Ashley’s unfairly short-lived production Leap of Faith, here cast as a fledgling TV reporter who gets her first break when the planes touch down in Gander. But singly, paired and in groups, the whole cast is excellent, including Q. Smith as a woman from Queens who’s frantic because her son is a New York City firefighter whose whereabouts are unknown, Astrid Van Wieren as a Newfoundlander who becomes her confidante, and, as one of the pilots, Jenn Colella, whose solo, “Me and the Sky,” is a marvel of dramatic clarity and emotional range.

From the point of view of the visitors, especially the Americans, the musical is about the weird experience of finding yourself pulled outside the locus of a tragedy that under normal circumstances you’d be experiencing like everyone else in the country. Because the passengers are forced to remain aboard their planes for as long as twenty-eight hours, ironically they don’t even know what the rest of the world knows until they’re brought inside the schools and other buildings repurposed as shelters and watch the replayed 9/11 footage in stunned silence. For a while they become obsessed with it, as most of us did; then they – and their hosts – retreat to the demands of their new temporary situation as a way of escaping from it. The last number before the finale, “Something’s Missing,” is a moving exploration of the way the Newfoundlanders and the visitors have to deal with a return to reality after a combination of necessity and unbelievable generosity and a sense of adventure reconfigure their lives in five rather magical days. I disliked the way the Broadway transcription of the Irish movie musical Once and the second act of Diane Paulus’s revival of Hair bent over backwards to convince the audience that they were part of some communal experience; both felt rigged to me. But the deceptive simplicity of Come from Away and its complete sincerity genuinely reach across the footlights. It’s not a great play but its authenticity counts for a great deal.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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