Wherever you’ve come from to attend the touring production of Come From Away at West Palm Beach’s Raymond F. Kravis Center, you’re likely to come away from this production satisfied. The successful musical, which is still running on Broadway after a 2017 opening, takes place in 2001, during the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
But before you shrink back from the implications of a show rooted in such a shattering tragedy, you should note that the play takes place not close to ground zero but across the Canadian border. After US airspace was closed due to crashes, 38 planes were diverted to an airport that had once served as a fueling station in a small town called Gander, nearly doubling its population as a full 7,000 “plane people” must be clothed, fed, and sheltered by the Gander residents.
And these Newfoundlanders are, admirably, up to the task, stunning many of the more jaded Americans with the extent of their hospitality. The show is based on interviews with people who were present at the actual event and, rather than following the journey of a singular protagonist or two, Come From Away paints its picture by focusing on the community as a whole.
The play’s cast of 12 plays a litany of characters, indicating their changes of identity through minor costume changes or by noticeably altering their accents; the Newfoundlanders have a distinctive Canadian drawl, and the other characters conveniently hail from more or less everywhere, from Texas to London to Africa.
Set mostly during a 5 day period, the play blows by in a little under two hours, briskly riding the current of its crisis-driven adrenaline before slowing down to a more somber, reflective aftermath. Stranding most of the characters miles away from their homelands also has the effect of pushing the play into a somewhat liminal space.
Wearing other people’s clothes, the travelers feel like they are at a “costume party,” free to leave their comfort zones and to be someone other than themselves, whether that means striking up a new flirtation with a stranger, flashing the crowd from an airplane window, or getting hammered and kissing a fish.
Indeed, Come From Away is set distantly enough from 9/11’s white-hot center to allow for this kind of levity, with scores of memorable laugh lines. Yet though the silly intermingles with the sincere, undercurrents of grief and disorientation are never far from the surface either. Characters first wonder what has happened, and then, once they learn, struggle to believe, let alone make sense of it.
In fact, the image of the displaced passengers glued for hours to their news broadcasts, not knowing what is happening or what might happen next, is one of many that called to mind the atmosphere of the more recent shared tragedy of the pandemic.
Yet, as many of us rose to the occasion by reaching out for connection and offering charity during COVID-times, by opening their hearts to each other and their strange circumstances, both natives and passengers alike are able to find “something” in the middle of “nothing,” and “somewhere” in the middle of “nowhere,” forming several lasting relationships in the process.
Come From Away embraces these genuinely uplifting aspects of its material without sugar-coating its sorrows, every silver lining counter-balanced by a moment a good deal darker. For instance while one romance blossoms, another couple grows apart; and while a black man is surprised by the unquestioning acceptance of his temporary Newfoundland neighbors and a Jewish man finally finds the courage to be open about his faith, a Muslim man finds himself newly subject to discrimination and scrutiny.
Composer team Irene Sankoff and David Hein deliver a lively, earwormy score, from upbeat comedic numbers to suit the characters’ drunken escapades or the fast-paced absurdity of their adventure to moving ensemble numbers that fully convey the situation’s emotional gravity.
Aside from some sound issues near the show’s beginning that made a few characters’ already somewhat difficult to understand accents even less comprehensible, the technical aspects of the production were also top-notch.
A relatively minimalist set by Beowulf Boritt incorporates only some scene-setting trees and a few pieces of furniture, though that furniture does swivel memorably on a turntable a few times during the evening. And the show’s musicians not only underscore the action but join in on it themselves during one dance break and during the show’s encore.
The cast was also uniformly excellent—though it’s difficult to name standouts in such a consummately ensemble piece, Marika Aubrey gets one of the show’s best moments during one of its few solos, playing a character inspired by real-life boundary-breaker Beverly Bass.
Sharriese Hamilton also adeptly carries the weight of her character Hannah’s storyline, one of the show’s most affecting. After a weighty revelation about one of her family members, I could hear audible sobs from some of my fellow audience members.
And though I was not (quite) among the tearful, I was plenty affected by both that moment and by the piece as a whole, a particularly cathartic theatre-going experience in the Kravis’s massive auditorium after COVID’s long intermission.
You have only until this Sunday, November 21, to get swept up in Come From Away for yourself before it’s up and off to its next destination. If you do, its heavy but heartening story of chaos and charity isn’t one you’re likely to soon forget.
Ilana Jael earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and a BA in Writing and Psychology from Florida Atlantic University’s Wilkes Honors College. She also served as co-founder of the student theatre troupe “Theatre in the Raw.” She has been dabbling in both playwriting and acting since high school. A few favorite roles include Rebel in Columbinus (Bob Carter’s Actor’s Rep), The Fearful One in The Cave (G-Star School of The Arts), and Amanda in The Glass Menagerie (Theatre In The Raw). Her one-act plays Goodbye, Karma’s A Bitch, Certainly Not About Him, and Open Heart have also been previously performed at Actor’s Rep and/or at Florida Atlantic University. More recently, Ilana appeared in and created the original musical ZeeZou’s Stardust Extravaganza with Area Stage’s Miami Queer Theatre Collective. Her short plays have been produced virtually by New City Players, Theatre Lab, and Femuscripts. She is also a current company member of New City Players, and you can check out her theatre blog at ilanaintheatreland.com!