Heal­ing amid terror

Mu­si­cal ‘Come From Away’ re­mem­bers kind­ness to stranded trav­el­ers dur­ing 9/11.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - CHARLES McNULTY THEATER CRITIC

Ter­ror­ists make the cov­ers of news­pa­pers while those who self lessly give com­fort and sup­port in times of cri­sis are usu­ally rel­e­gated to the back pages.

“Come From Away,” the small yet stir­ring new mu­si­cal that opened last week at La Jolla Play­house, tries to cor­rect that in­jus­tice in a story that re­ceived some media at­ten­tion but couldn’t help get­ting lost in the wel­ter of ur­gent 9/11 con­cerns.

The show — writ­ten by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a Cana­dian hus­ban­dand-wife writ­ing team, and di­rected with in­vig­o­rat­ing verve by La Jolla Play­house

artis­tic di­rec­tor Christo­pher Ash­ley — tells the true story of a Cana­dian town that shel­tered thou­sands of air­line pas­sen­gers whose flights had been di­verted on Sept. 11, 2001.

If this doesn’t sound like such a big deal, imag­ine the pop­u­la­tion of your com­mu­nity nearly dou­bling in a sin­gle morn­ing, forc­ing you and your neigh­bors to scram­ble for bed­ding, baby for­mula, pet sup­plies and tele­phones, not to men­tion break­fast, lunch and din­ner for nearly 7,000 dis­tressed trav­el­ers from all parts of the globe.

On that in­fa­mous Tues­day, Gan­der, New­found­land, a dot on Canada’s map, was jolted out of its staid rou­tine. Once an air­line hub where planes would re­fuel on transat­lantic f lights, the town is summed up at the talky top of the num­ber “Welcome to New­found­land”: “There’s a two-per­son po­lice depart­ment/An ele­men­tary school/An SPCA/A lo­cal TV sta­tion/Did we men­tion the air­port?”

The good cit­i­zens of Gan­der, or­di­nary folks in­dif­fer­ent to the spotlight, mar­shaled their re­sources not with grudg­ing duty but with gen­uine fel­low-feel­ing for the tired, scared and be­wil­dered oc­cu­pants of the 38 planes that landed at their air­port. A char­ac­ter up­dat­ing the tally re­ports that, by the end of the first night, as the planes slowly emp­tied, the pop­u­la­tion rose from ap­prox­i­mately 9,000 to 17,000.

Res­i­dents found lit­tle time for sleep — or com­plain­ing — amid their volunteering. For the days that U.S. airspace re­mained eerily quiet, a back­wa­ter gen­er­ously hosted the world.

This touch­ing story rides on a cease­less f low of rock, folk and Gaelic-sound­ing strains, per­formed by an on­stage band un­der the mu­sic su­per­vi­sion of Ian Eisendrath. The sound is in­fec­tious, invit­ing peo­ple from dif­fer­ent back­grounds to meld to­gether in a mul­ti­cul­tural jig — one that the char- ac­ters from the mu­si­cal “Once” would likely find im­pos­si­ble to re­sist.

This is a choral mu­si­cal in the sense that it is a true ensem­ble ef­fort, with no one char­ac­ter or singer al­lowed to dom­i­nate. Although there is a lot of vet­eran tal­ent on hand, the pro­duc­tion is re- fresh­ingly star-free.

Bet­ter still, the cast mem­bers, who pitch in to por­tray both res­i­dents and visi­tors alike, wear the or­di­nar­i­ness of their char­ac­ters with a dig­ni­fied dif­fer­ence. Some­times with a show of this sort, there’s a sub­tle yet de­tectable con­de­scen­sion, a sense of ac­tors champ­ing at the bit to play sim­ple folk.

Not here. This is an every­man and every­woman mu­si­cal per­formed by their thes­pian equiv­a­lents. Easy to over­look, these per­form­ers don’t de­mand your at­ten­tion, yet when they have a mo­ment to re­veal them­selves they glow with au­then­tic per­son­al­ity.

Claude (Joel Hatch) is the folksy Mayor of Gan­der who may not be ac­cus­tomed to crises, but when one hits, he proves him­self up to the chal­lenge. Bon­nie (Pet­rina Brom­ley), a mother who vol­un­teers at the lo­cal SPCA, is the only one to con­sider the plight of the scared and hun­gry an­i­mals trapped in cargo holds and, dis­re­gard­ing se- cu­rity re­stric­tions, she cares for them as though they were her own.

Bev­er­ley (Jenn Colella, putting her won­der­fully tex­tured singing voice to mem­o­rable use) is a pi­lot who main­tains her pro­fes­sional cool for the sake of her pas­sen­gers. Beu­lah (Astrid Van Wieren), a lo­cal mother with a fire­fighter son, stands by Lana (Q. Smith), whose NYC fire­fighter son is re­ported miss­ing.

There’s a love story of sorts be­tween Diane (Sharon Wheat­ley), a Texas di­vorcee, and Nick (Lee MacDougall), a shy oil engi­neer from Eng­land. Colin (Chad Kim­ball) and his boyfriend/ sec­re­tary, also named Colin (Cae­sar Sa­mayoa), aren’t so lucky — this his­toric predica­ment re­veals that maybe they aren’t ideally suited for one another af­ter all.

Taken in­di­vid­u­ally, these sto­ries aren’t enough to hang a mu­si­cal on, but col­lec­tively they make for an af­fect­ing one-act show. The sit­u­a­tion is slightly over- stretched by Sankoff and Hein, who ought to em­brace their work’s small-scale na­ture and not worry about its com­mer­cial po­ten­tial.

Only 100 min­utes long, “Come From Away” would ben­e­fit from a 20-minute trim. It could also use a catchier ti­tle and some sharp­en­ing of its po­lit­i­cal aware­ness. (The few al­lu­sions to Mus­lims and eth­nic pro­fil­ing seem per­func­tory, to say the least.)

Broad­way doesn’t strike me as a nat­u­ral des­ti­na­tion, though the pro­duc­tion, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Seat­tle Reper­tory Theatre, is staged with re­mark­able fi­nesse and buoy­ancy. Ash­ley’s di­rec­tion lifts the ma­te­rial with­out over­selling it.

On a spare wooden set with a few pieces of ba­sic fur­ni­ture, scenic de­signer Be­owulf Boritt finds ways of ma­te­ri­al­iz­ing the un­pre­ten­tious spirit of New­found­land. How­ell Bink­ley’s light­ing makes the shifts in lo­cale from plane to pub to

makeshift shel­ter easy to fol­low. Kelly Devine’s chore­og­ra­phy keeps the move­ment lively with­out turn­ing this mod­est show into a spec­tac­u­lar.

“Come From Away” re­minded me a bit of “The Women of Locker­bie,” Deb­o­rah Brevoort’s drama about another in­stance of in­ter­na­tional love and gen­eros­ity coun­ter­ing in a small yet mean­ing­ful way an act of ter­ror­ist bar­bar­ity. Any artis­tic qualms I might have had with these works were eclipsed by a feel­ing of grat­i­tude — 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.

Kevin Berne L a Jolla Play­house

JENN COLELLA plays pi­lot Bev­er­ley in “Come From Away,” a mu­si­cal about how Gan­der, New­found­land, of­fered shel­ter to thou­sands.

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