‘Come From Away’ lands at the National with a cargo hold of care and joy

The emotional power of the material comes through clearly in this quintessential ensemble show about ordinary people's kindness.

Strong, energetic, tight, precise ensemble work is one of the greatest joys of theater. Come From Away — written by the Canadian couple Irene Sankoff and David Heim, and directed by Christopher Ashley — is the quintessential ensemble show, exploring the temporary, accidental community created among the residents of Gander, Newfoundland, and the passengers and crews of 38 transatlantic flights diverted there on 9/11. As Heim and Sankoff commented in an interview, it is not so much a September 11 story as it is a September 12 story, about how people respond to one another after a tragedy.

The first North American tour company of ‘Come From Away.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The show’s 12 actors, all playing multiple roles, switch seamlessly and instantly from townspeople to “plane people” and back again, changing accents or clothing items or rearranging the wooden chairs of Beowulf Boritt’s set design to represent the rows of an aircraft or a local café. The majority of musical numbers are group pieces in which members of the company, with perfect timing, contribute individual lines in their character of the moment.

The impeccable mechanics of the show’s intricate blocking and movement (Kelly Devine choreographed) never obscure the emotional power of the material. Come From Away has often been characterized as “heartwarming” (sometimes pejoratively). True enough, but that term falls short of describing the range of feelings pervading the show: fear and uncertainty, love found and lost, empathy and suspicion, joy and grief, moments of reflection and moments of laughter.

That these feelings come across so clearly to audiences is due in no small part to the fact that the characters, situations, and often exact words spoken are firmly grounded in reality. In 2011, Sankoff and Heim interviewed many of the participants, creating what was in effect an oral history of the event. In shaping this raw material into a show, they used the stories of some specific participants, while creating other characters as composites.

Of the former, Beverly (Marika Aubery) is the most notable. The first female American Airlines captain, she gets the show’s outstanding solo number, “Me and the Sky,” an autobiographical piece about her overcoming ingrained prejudice against women in the cockpit. Aubery knocks the number out of the park. As a middle-aged couple who fall in love while in Gander, Nick and Diane (Chamblee Ferguson and Christine Toy Johnson) have a gentle duet, ”Stop the World,” as they contemplate parting too soon after meeting.

Marika Aubery as Beverly and the North American tour company of ‘Come From Away.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Given the number of stories packed into the 100-minute show, characters are shown in telling glimpses rather than given lengthy development. To mention a few: Bonnie (Sharone Sayegh), of the Gander SPCA, leads an effort to rescue the many animals in the planes’ cargo holds, including a rare, pregnant primate. Danielle K. Thomas as Hannah, desperately anxious about the fate of her son, a New York firefighter, sings the poignant “I Am Here,” as she tries to reach him by phone. Claude (Kevin Carolan) is the mayor of Gander, who quietly organizes the effort to care for the 7,000 new arrivals in his town of 9,000. Bob (James Earl Jones Jr.) is a city dweller who finds the peace and security of a Canadian small town disconcerting. Kevin T. and Kevin J. (Jeremy Woodward and Nick Duckart) are a gay couple whose stay in Gander underlines strains in their relationship. Duckart also plays Ali, the only Muslim in the story, who is viewed with suspicion by many of the others.

Nick Duckart as Kevin J. and Jeremy Woodward as Kevin T. with the North American tour company of ‘Come From Away.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The Celtic/folk-influenced score includes some foot-stomping numbers, like the opening “Welcome to the Rock” and the karaoke bar number, “Screech In,” the latter set amidst a comic welcoming ceremony involving kissing a fish. Some of the ensemble numbers are basically expository, such as “Blankets and Bedding,” as the residents prepare to care for the off-islanders. Others depict a group mood, like “28 Hours/Wherever We Are,” concerning the anxiety and frustration of passengers who have been made to remain on the planes, or “Something’s Missing,” about the melancholy of leaving when the planes are allowed to depart. The seven-piece band, led by Cameron Moncur, was a lively presence throughout and provided a mini-concert for the audience following the curtain call (which, appropriately for an ensemble show, was a collective bow for all the actors). The audience, already on its feet, clapped along.

Howell Binkley’s lighting design was as quick-moving and specific as the writing, passing from one actor to another as lines were exchanged. The colors behind the upstage plank wall of the set were a subtle background to the moods of various scenes. Toni-Leslie James’ costume design emphasized the “real people” look of the show, with occasional character-related enhancements (e.g., Beverly’s uniform jacket).

The North American tour company of ‘Come From Away.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Goodness can be difficult to portray. The kindness of strangers can feel an anomaly in a world in which kindness itself seems strange, when many people, frequently in circumstances far more dire than those of the passengers landing in Gander, are kept at bay. Come From Away succeeds by portraying goodness and kindness and empathy as matter-of-fact, everyday ways in which ordinary people live their lives; no heroism or extraordinary moral sensibility required. It does so in a musical and theatrical package that creates joy for those who watch it.

Running Time: One hour 40 minutes, with no intermission.

Come From Away plays through April 17, 2022, on tour at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington DC. Evening performances each day are at 7:30 pm. Matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday, April 16 and 17, are at 2 pm. Tickets ($65–$130) are available online. There is also a daily digital lottery.

The Come From Away North American tour cast and creative credits are here.

COVID Safety: All guests must provide proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 with a photo ID before entering The National Theatre. For guests under age 12 and those who need a reasonable accommodation for medical reasons or due to a sincerely held religious belief, please review the Frequently Asked Questions at COVID-19 Info Center for additional information. Masks are required for all guests, regardless of vaccination status and/or age. Masks must be worn at all times.

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