Nearly 18 years ago, four airplanes slammed into the United States and turned the numbers 9/11 into a global tragedy. We now have enough distance from the terrorist attacks that killed 3,000 people to consider the side stories. COME FROM AWAY, the Broadway hit onstage at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through August 18, is one of them.
Actually, COME FROM AWAY is a composite of many real-life stories from Gander, Newfoundland – a place few people knew unless their international trip involved changing planes at its airport. On September 11, 2001 when the world came to a standstill, the little Canadian town played host to 38 diverted flights and 7000 stranded flyers. Hearts opened, tempers flared and phone lines clogged as Gander stretched its resources to meet human needs.
Irish flavor, international strangers in COME FROM AWAY
COME FROM AWAY opens with “Welcome to the Rock,” a rousing number that establishes a place where very little happens and where everyone speaks in a quirky accent that hints at Newfoundland’s Irish heritage. The 12-person ensemble introduces us to such locals as the cop, animal shelter worker, school teacher and mayor. By late morning, 9/11’s impact reaches Gander via its air traffic control tower and suddenly too much is happening. Actors flip back and forth between the townspeople and the passengers forced to land far from their intended destinations.
Everyone is disoriented. The Gander locals can barely fathom that thousands of international strangers are arriving; the travelers don’t realize they have to land because the Twin Towers are burning. In 2001, not everyone carried a cellphone and smartphones transmitting breaking news didn’t exist. COME FROM AWAY captures a time when air travel meant losing touch with the ground. The cast swiftly moves chairs to create an airplane packed with passengers trapped on the tarmac, getting friendly on free booze distributed by the crew and knowing nothing more than some sort of “accident” may have occurred.
Meeting the challenge from the skies
The set lightly suggests the Canadian island’s rural isolation and natural beauty. An eight-piece band tucked unobtrusively into an upstage corner plays the Celtic folk-infused score with foot-tapping drive. In one number, “Blankets and Bedding,” the townspeople gather everything from tampons to prescription medicines. Musically and dramatically, we feel the shift from their easygoing lifestyle to the brisk urgency that the situation requires.
Becky Gulsvig plays a female American Airlines pilot who sings “Me and the Sky” – a moving paean to her love of flying and 9/11’s damage to its purity. In the song, she recalls the humiliation of male pilots telling her to bring them something to drink. Days later, when the ban on air travel is finally lifted, she prepares to fly to Dallas by strip-searching a Muslim man. In the name of passenger safety, she violates his religious beliefs and deeply humiliates him. It becomes a moment of personal illumination for her – and the beginning of mistrust towards an entire segment of the traveling population.
Just about everyone who lived through 9/11 tends to mark the date as a watershed. Those who came after it have absorbed its effects. Under layers of security measures, a fear of terrorism has replaced openness; caution has replaced tolerance. COME FROM AWAY serves as a corrective. Without goodness and trust on both sides, these stories from Newfoundland simply wouldn’t exist.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves
Kevin Carolan, Harter Clingman, Nick Duckart, Chamblee Ferguson, Becky Gulsvig, Julie Johnson, Christine Toy Johnson, James Earl Jones II, Megan McGinnis, Andrew Samonsky, Danielle K. Thomas, Emily Walton, Marika Aubrey, Jane Bunting, Michael Brian Dunn, Julie Garnyé, Adam Halpin and Aaron Michael Ray
Irene Sankoff & David Hein (book, lyrics, music), Christopher Ashley (director), Kelly Devine (music director), Ian Eisendrath (music supervisor), Beowulf Boritt (scenic design), costume design by Tony Award nominee Toni-Leslie James (costume design), Howell Binkley (lighting design) sound design by Tony Award nominee Gareth Owen (sound design)
Now through August 18
Tuesdays at 7:30 PM
Wednesdays at 2 & 7:30 PM
Thursdays at 7:30 PM
Fridays at 7:30 PM
Saturdays at 2 & 8 PM
Sundays at 2 & 7:30 PM (no evening performance on Aug. 11 & 18)
Cadillac Palace Theatre
151 W. Randolph
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows recently aired on BBC Radio 4.