Charming. Folksy. Touching. Funny. Sad. Ambitious.
That’s Come From Away in a nutshell – a rollicking play that has you laughing one moment, wiping a tear away the next, and laughing again in a heartbeat. That it’s still a work in progress makes it all the more impressive. The performance I saw was a one-off workshop, a staged line reading: 14 student actors from Sheridan College spread out across the stage with microphones, literally backed up by the band.
The city of Gander, Newfoundland, had about 10,000 residents back in September, 2001, and unexpectedly swelled to nearly 19,000 for the better part of a week when 38 passenger jets made emergency landings. Did the community pull together to feed, clothe and care for its visitors? Yes. Was there any doubt that they would? Hardly. Writers David Hein and Irene Sankoff found drama and poignant moments in the low yet fascinating stakes of simple stories simply told by the people to whom they happened. Every vignette on stage is true, diligently researched and faithfully recalled.
Also? The play is a musical, if you can believe it, and a very smart one. Rather than power ballads and individual virtuoso moments, the rustic, Celtic-inspired sounds of the Maritimes provide the show’s narrative and emotional backbone. The songs and dialogue trade off continuously through each scene, the former rising to establish the mood of the moment, the latter acting as specific punctuation to further each individual story and character beat. “Wherever We Are” is an early winner, the ensemble keeping up a steady refrain of confusion and helplessness while the dialogue intervenes to deliver a rapid-fire sequence of reassured phone calls to loved ones, cheers about free booze on the plane, negotiations for cell phone use, and one man’s desperate “Please pick up. Please pick up. Please pick up.”
So what did I witness, exactly? I saw one romance end and another begin. I saw a Gander SPCA volunteer essentially burgle her way into the planes’ cargo holds to care for the animals she knew must be inside. I saw a New Jersey man convinced his hosts were going to steal his wallet or shoot him; the worst they did was invite him in for a cuppa. I saw the mayor of Gander make the most of cancelled hockey games, turning the rink into the world’s largest walk-in freezer so he could satisfy Health Canada’s regulations that all donated food be refrigerated. I saw one of the first female airline captains ever sickened at the idea of her one true passion, flight, perverted into a weapon.
There were missteps, to be sure. The play’s structure and flow need work, where some stories felt as though they stepped on each others’ toes. Why have the two romantic couples interact with each other for a few lines of dialogue if nothing will come of it? In a triumph of muddled storytelling, it really didn’t come across that passengers were prevented from disembarking due to security concerns; it seemed to be due to a labour dispute with Gander bus drivers. (There was a strike, but they lifted it for the emergency long before the security regulations permitted people to leave.)
Some of the jokes fell flat for me, just because they’ve been done before. Any time you have city slickers in a hick town, you’re guaranteed to get one guy asking how to leave, and a local giving an unintelligible string of directions all in one massive breath, ending with a clearly understood “and then you’ll be where you want to be” and a long staring contest, the visitor flummoxed by vernacular and the local pleased with a question well answered. Notice to all writers everywhere: it’s been done. Much better was the gag where a bus with freshly deplaned passengers comes to a screeching halt, the driver announcing calmly, “Don’t worry, it’s just an elk up ‘dere in ‘da road.” Ten-second pause, everybody staring. “She’ll move soon. ‘Talways do.” Fifteen-second pause, staring. “When she’s good and ready.” Stare. Even the schmaltz worked for me, and my schmaltz detector is always on high alert. I’d be singing a different tune if the show were fiction, but it isn’t. Made-up schmaltz is emotional manipulation at its worst; real-life schmaltz works its way into your jaded heart for the simple reason that it’s real.
If the concept of “Canadian musical about 9/11” has you running for the hills, I don’t blame you. And yet Come From Away works brilliantly, and not in spite of its concept. It’s a little play about little people who get stuck in a little town, and the little things that happen to them. I hope this work continues its progress and finds a larger production one day. To say that it shows promise is a little unkind; for my money, it’s almost ready to go. I only wish it was more than a one-night affair so more people could have seen it at this early stage.