The Washington Post
Grace amid horror
The Broadway musical “Come From Away” on the National Mall opens hearts to memories of Sept. 11, 2001.
Thousands of people gathered under a pink-hued Friday evening sky on the National Mall for a deeply meaningful, moving and melodious event: the performance of a Broadway musical enshrining acts of extraordinary grace that occurred amid the indelible horrors of 20 years ago.
With the renowned visage of Abraham Lincoln gazing on from his memorial, the cast of “Come From Away” — the story of a Canadian town that sheltered 7,000 airline passengers stranded there on 9/11 — sang for what had to be one of the largest audiences ever for theater in the nation’s capital. Theatergoers in folding chairs and on picnic blankets ringed the Reflecting Pool for 100 minutes of boisterous harmonies and anecdotes about the largesse of a small Newfoundland community. One with not many more citizens than the throngs who had assembled here.
Staged under the auspices of Ford’s Theatre, where “Come From Away” played in 2016 before its Broadway opening, the free and stirringly orchestrated evening brought old memories quickly and powerfully to the fore. Behind me, whenever a cast member invoked the name of an airline pilot who died in one of the 9/11 planes, a woman reflexively sobbed.
“The story is about shining a light in the darkest of days,” said Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, who was invited by Paul Tetreault, artistic head of Ford’s, to give a welcoming address. Observing how the musical depicts “your neighbors, waiting to pull you through,” she said: “The warm embrace still lingers today. And I think you’re going to feel it tonight.”
The emotional and historic connectivity of presenting “Come From Away” on the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, on this breath
taking platform, before an audience of great size, made for a profound experience. It’s by no means a solemn entertainment; Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the Canadian American husband-and-wife team who wrote it, capture the close-knit, openhearted directness of the Gander townfolk in all their generosity and silliness. (Induction as an honorary Newfoundlander, the show informs us, entails downing the local rotgut and, yes, kissing a codfish.)
Twelve actors — drawn in this case from both the Broadway production, which resumes on Sept. 21, and members of the national touring version — alternate between portraying Gander residents and the “plane people.” When American airspace shut down on Sept. 11, 2001, 38 passenger jets were diverted to Gander’s large runways, vestiges of a time when trans-atlantic flights required refueling stops. Gander and other nearby towns mobilized to take care of strangers from every corner of the globe who were stuck there for days.
Just as there was nothing nuanced about 9/11 and its aftershocks, “Come From Away” is not a subtle piece. The art of representation here is an ennoblement of human impulses to rescue and to survive. (It’s also just about the greatest advertisement ever for the Canadian character, a civility that — at least from my perch in this oppressively dysfunctional nation — seems practically angelic.) So the dozen actors also serve as narrators, escorting us day by day through the assorted acts of kindness as well as the cultural mishaps, to create a kind of singing magazine article of what it all was like.
How marvelous that musical theater could do this for Washington on such a solemn occasion. We who love the form have been denied it for so long that being close to it again feels like a startling freedom — even from behind a mask. In front of me sat Kimberly Schraf, a veteran Washington actress, with her actor-husband, Craig Wallace, a Ford’s board member who was also called upon to give a welcoming speech. “This is my first,” a wide-eyed Schraf said to me, of her return to live theater. “My heart is racing.”
On a canopied stage and via a pair of jumbotrons, the musical unfolded in this concert version, a modification of director Christopher Ashley’s more complex turntable staging. The voices and the orchestra mixed exhilaratingly on the Mall, and the music, redolent of the Celtic influences on the maritime province, seemed to have a supercharged, spirit-lifting impact on this occasion. Sankoff and Hein’s score culminates for me near the evening’s end during “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere,” an unabashedly sentimental bon voyage song that I never tire of hearing: “Something in the middle of nowhere,” it goes, “in the middle of clear blue air, you found your heart, but left a part of you behind.”
It’s fair to say the cast sang their own hearts out. They were: Christine Toy Johnson, Sharriese Hamilton, Julia Knitel, Happy Mcpartlin, Sharone Sayegh, Julie Reiber, Harter Clingman, Tony Lepage, Nick Duckart, Josh Breckenridge, Kevin Carolan and Chamblee Ferguson.
Several of the “plane people” on whom “Come From Away” characters are based were in the audience, too. They included Diane and Nick Marson, passengers who fell in love in Gander and are married and live in Texas, and Kevin Tuerff, half of the show’s gay couple of “Kevins” who as a result of his experience founded the “Pay It Forward 9/11” philanthropy to encourage acts of goodness.
Tetreault, the Ford’s leader, said his initial thought was to organize an event that would herald in a big way the restoration of the performing arts to its prominent place. He did that, grandly, in the middle of a special somewhere.