La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘Come From Away’ shows heart

September 11, 2001 is widely regarded as this generation’s “JFK Moment” in so far as everyone aware of the unfolding events of that day could probably say exactly where they were when they first heard the tragic news.  But while many people can describe watching the events of September 11, few can describe what they gave in response to the tragedy in such generous terms as the people of Gander, Newfoundland who welcomed 7000 passengers on 38 diverted planes that day.

The story unfolds in rapidly-paced vignettes in the new musical Come From Away, playing at La Jolla Playhouse through July 5 (at least).  The creators—husband-and-wife writing team Irene Sankoff and David Hein—are known to those who know them at all from their first show, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, based on David’s mother’s true story.  It seems this team feels that real life stories make the best stories.  And they have real life stories in abundance.

Sankoff and Hein traveled to Newfoundland in September 2011 to take part in the reunion commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 7000 temporary refugees descending on Gander.  They conducted extensive interviews with the “Plane People” as well as the citizens of Gander who opened their doors and their hearts.  These first-person accounts—often delivered to the audience in direct address—along with the folk Irish musical elements—a piece of Newfoundland’s unique cultural history—makes Come From Away equal parts The Laramie Project and Once.

Come From Away is the second show from husband-and-wife creative team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, following their first and also based on a true story success, My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. (Photo courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse)

Come From Away is the second show from husband-and-wife creative team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, following their first and also based on a true story success, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. (Photo courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse)

Twelve actors portray dozens of characters—both locals and “come from aways”—and the players masterfully and quickly endear these characters to their audience.  Because the creators jam-packed so many different perspectives of the same story, the action of the show doesn’t stop.  Though songs are listed in the program, they really could be considered sequences.  Locales, characters, accents, and stories continually shift in both dialogue and song.  Not until late in the show does any one character receive an honest-to-goodness “number.”  The pioneering pilot Beverley—played with strength by Jenn Colella—helps the audience finally breathe with “Me and the Sky.”  Following that bit of breathing room, “Stop the World” provides Nick—a cheeky Lee MacDougall—and Diane—the fantastically chameleonic Sharon Wheatley—with some reflection on how their lives have changed.

Jenn Colella shines in the role of pioneering pilot Beverley in the new musical Come From Away. (Kevin Berne/ La Jolla Playhouse)

Jenn Colella shines in the role of pioneering pilot Beverley in the new musical Come From Away. (Kevin Berne/ La Jolla Playhouse)

Evocative of the story itself, director Christopher Ashley stages this show with simple elements put together in an amazingly complex way.  A few chairs and tables comprise the set amidst towering onstage trees and partially onstage band.  Despite the already mentioned whirlwind of unfolding action, the story has moments of much-needed cathartic humor.  Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa play a number of these moments to great effect as Colin 1 and Colin 2.  No-nonsense Canadian humor comes from Petrina Bromley—a real-life Newfoundlander!—as Bonnie and Astrid Van Wieren as Beulah.

The least consistent moments of the show were—unfortunately—the opening and the closing.  In both instances, the entire company welcomes the audience to “The Rock” through some foot-stomping, heel-dropping, “We’re a strong community” kind of choreography.  Though it means well, the staging is reminiscent of “It’s a Bitch of Living” from Spring Awakening.  The stomping of a bunch of adults in polos and mom jeans seems out of place.  Particularly given how nurturing and generous the audience sees these people throughout the rest of the show, the opening number shows the citizens of Gander in an angrier light than we see them throughout the rest of the show.  It evokes strength, perhaps, but my eyes were wide and concerned on both occasions.

The company of Come From Away--along with the ugly stick--complete the ritual for becoming a Newfoundlander in "Screech In." (Kevin Berne/ La Jolla Playhouse)

The company of Come From Away–along with the ugly stick–complete the ritual for becoming a Newfoundlander in “Screech In.” (Kevin Berne/ La Jolla Playhouse)

The rest of the time, however, my eyes were pooling.  In fact, with each aspect of the story, I sustained a level of “about to cry” so long that I left the theatre with a headache.  But the pain was to the company’s credit.  The extraordinary generosity of ordinary people over the course of five fateful days in September 2001 create an incredible emotional journey for the audience.  Whether or not the audience leaves feeling uplifted by the human spirit—which I did—the show unearths our own memories and our own reactions to this national tragedy.

On September 11, 2001, I was at home in Belleville.  I was painting my bedroom closet mustard yellow.  I turned on the radio to Y98, and went about my work.  As I set up my work space only half-heartedly listening, I realized that what I was hearing wasn’t a St. Louis traffic report.  “No one is getting in or out of Manhattan,” came the voice, much more grave than normal for a morning radio show.  Honestly it took me another moment or two before figuring out that something had happened—something very serious.  I went downstairs to the television and flipped on the Today Show.  Before I could even understand all the images that I was seeing, I watched—in real time—as Flight 175 hit the second tower.  It was horrific. 

 I was about to start my junior year of college studying abroad at my university’s London campus.  Because of our term schedule, I was not leaving until the first of October.  Whether I would be able to go at all was in serious question, because no one knew what was going to happen next.  Would there be more attacks?  Would we retaliate?  My friend who was scheduled to study in Edinburgh was kept home.  I did study in London that term, but it was not without trepidation on the part of my parents. 

 How did you experience the events of September 11, 2001.  Share your story by commenting below.

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