“Come From Away,” by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, chronicles what happened when 38 international flights brought some 6,700 unanticipated visitors to a remote community in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador on Sept. 11, 2001.
The 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on the U.S. was commemorated in solemn public ceremonies around the world.
But in Gander, Newfoundland, Sept. 11, 2011 was not only a day of remembrance. It was also a day of reunion — and the birthplace of a new musical now in previews at Seattle Repertory Theatre, “Come From Away.”
“Come From Away,” copresented by Seattle Rep and La Jolla Playhouse, chronicles what happened when 38 international flights brought some 6,700 unanticipated visitors to a remote community in the easterly Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
‘Come From Away’
by David Hein and Irene Sankoff. Through Dec. 13 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center; tickets start at $17 (206-443-2222; seattlerep.org)
The emergency flight diversions to the area, and others to eastern and western Canada, were ordered on 9/11 when the American government closed U.S. airspace soon after hijacked jets crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
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Gander International Airport, once a popular refueling spot for transcontinental flights, was a well-equipped place for detoured plane traffic to land.
And it was the generous, compassionate hospitality from residents of Gander and nearby towns that became a rare feel-good news story amid horrifying accounts of terror acts that took nearly 3,000 lives.
Many grateful recipients of Gander’s benevolence returned in 2011. Joining them were two young Toronto theater artists interested in creating an unlikely musical about what happened a decade earlier.
“Once again the world arrived on Gander’s doorstop,” recalls singer-songwriter David Hein. “And the town was filled with press people looking for five-second sound bites.”
But Hein and his creative partner and wife, Irene Sankoff, spent an entire month in Gander, seeking out stories and soaking up local atmosphere for “Come From Away,” which they wrote and composed together.
The friendly candor they were greeted with when interviewing residents and sojourners gave the pair insight into the town’s swift, openhearted response to the 2001 tragedy.
Random and organized acts of kindness abounded in a remote burg with only a few stoplights, a couple of police officers and, back then, about 9,000 citizens.
As Gander’s longtime Mayor Claude Elliott noted, in a recent phone interview, “We put people up in local churches, schools, service organizations. We asked the public to donate clothes and collected thousands of pounds of them.”
Hein and Sankoff collected stories — such as one about the dazed traveler who missed her dog and wanted a cup of coffee. Locals brought her the java, and a pooch to cuddle with.
Medications needed by passengers were provided free. The head of the area’s SPCA made sure pets aboard the rerouted flights were cared for.
Residents let the “plane people” use their washing machines and showers and invited some of them for suppers and overnights. Volunteers rustled up mass meals with donated provisions for strangers from more than 90 nations.
And during the several days travelers were sidelined in Gander, some lifelong friendships with their hosts were forged.
While not immediately aware of the terror attacks, the town and its guests were hit hard as the news seeped in. One couple learned their son, a firefighter, had died in the World Trade Center collapse. “They were well looked after,” reported Elliott. “People were always there to give them a hug, or just be with them.”
Moved and inspired, Hein says he and Sankoff returned to Toronto with “hundreds of stories we wanted to tell.”
It took several years of writing, composing, and workshop productions (including one in 2014 at Seattle Rep) to carve a show out of their mountain of research.
The musical tone of “Come From Away” was a given. “I grew up listening to Newfoundland (folk) music, and I loved it,” explains Hein.
Played traditionally on fiddles, accordions, guitars, pennywhistles and such homemade instruments as the “ugly stick” (devised from household and tool shed implements), this is “really rich, lively, storytelling music,” says Hein, “with British Isles influences. You gather in someone’s kitchen, everyone pulls out instruments and sings. The lovely music enhances the feeling of community.”
It was less apparent how to dramatize Gander’s 9/11 actions from the varying perspectives of community residents and visitors.
“We started out using verbatim quotes from interviews,” says Sankoff. But since its initial five-hour bulk, “Come From Away” has been pared down to about 100 minutes. Each of the dozen actors now portrays numerous characters, some composites of several people. To keep the pace brisk, a simple set with 12 chairs connotes an array of locations.
The authors say that in format the piece is similar to “The Laramie Project,” a lauded play by Tectonic Theater Project. It was crafted from interviews with Laramie, Wyo., residents about the hate-crime killing there of a young gay man.
But “Come From Away” tells a different story of common and uncommon decency during a crisis. The production enchanted many who saw the musical in its premiere at La Jolla Playhouse staged earlier this year by Broadway director and La Jolla artistic head Christopher Ashley.
Several familiar talents were involved in that first airing: performer Chad Kimball, the Seattle-reared Tony Award nominee for Broadway’s “Memphis”; Portland-based actor-singer Rodney Hicks; and 5th Avenue Theatre’s resident music supervisor Ian Eisendrath, who conducts the onstage band (including one “Newfie”). They’re also in the Rep cast, with added Seattle performers Eric Ankrim and Kendra Kassebaum in the ensemble.
San Diego Union-Tribune critic James Herbertpraised the SoCal production as an “inspired and highly original piece,” and Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the show instills “ gratitude for the healing power of good deeds and gratitude that those who do them without any expectation of reward are finally getting their due.”
Mayor Elliott, who’ll be in Seattle this month to see “Come From Away” for the first time, believes the way the influx of outsiders were treated was only natural.
“It’s our people, our culture, going back to our grandparents and great-grandparents,” he explained. “The weather is harsh out here, and we all help each other. We’re known for that. “
“9/11 was a terrible day in history,” Elliott reflected, “but from our perspective we showed the world there’s still some good people left.”
Their deeds and memories are the centerpiece of “Come From Away,” emphasizes Sankoff. “Newfoundlanders are not splashy people, but they’re so giving and a lot of fun. It wouldn’t do us any favor to move the show away from their stories, or the truth of their situation.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org